Feelings, when given control of behavior, become tyrants. Feelings may lead you to avoid those things you should do. Those things that would be good for you, and are good for others around you.
Reach Your Goals/Change Your Life
It’s difficult to believe that 2018 is coming to a close. I’ll bet you remember when the year was still fresh. A clean slate to write upon. Yet now the year is quickly running to the finish line. Another chapter of life written.
Many of us use this time to reflect on memories of what went well, the successes we’ve had, times with family and friends, and the goals we’ve achieved.
On the other hand, many of us also look at what we would like to have done differently. This can be a little painful. It might even cause some anxiety to look at those goals that were not reached. Things we promised ourselves we would finally complete, but once again somehow never got around to doing. (Spoiler alert… I’m going to show you how to move those painful items to the “Been there, done that” column of life).
All of this brings us to the topic of New Year’s resolutions.
With a new year stretched out before us, it’s natural to want to set ambitious goals. Important and personally meaningful goals. Often, without too much thought, we’ll latch onto a couple of things we would like to change in our life and then make a New Year resolution.
Sadly, by the middle of the year, most of us have broken these resolutions. I feel your pain.
Yep, by the time the weather turns warm, most of us have tossed aside our New Year resolutions. Dumped them on the side of the road that leads to summer. Tossed them out the window as if they were some regrettable impulse buy made at the Dollar Tree store. (True confession, I’ve never regretted a Dollar Tree purchase – but that’s not the issue).
Have you found yourself in that situation? The odds are you have – like most of us. Welcome to the club. But take a moment now to consider what might have happened if you had succeeded in fulfilling one or two of those resolutions? Better yet, what if you had been successful in keeping your resolutions over each of the past five years?
How might your life be different? In what ways could it be better? In what ways might you have become a better version of yourself? Really give that some thought.
Resolutions that are successful, even small resolutions, have the potential to dramatically change one’s life.
I recall the story of a woman in her 40’s who was depressed, overweight, socially isolated and a chain smoker. On a trip overseas, in a remote location, she found herself unable to buy cigarettes. For a full week she would be without her smokes.
“Why doesn’t Trip Advisor warn about such things!” she screamed into her pillow (OK, I added that, not sure the whole screaming into the pillow was part of her story).
Bottom line, the woman was not pleased. Nicotine withdrawal is a bear.
But by the end of the week she had an insight. Despite her numerous attempts to stop smoking throughout the previous ten years, she had never gone a full week without a cigarette. Now that she had a full week of being clean, she wondered if she could extend that streak for one more day.
It wasn’t easy, but she stayed clean another day. Then another, and another, and another. By this point her confidence had soared, as had her determination to stay ‘nicotine sober.’
Having kicked cigarettes out of her life, she physically felt much better. Her sleep had improved. Her thinking was clearer. She began to savor the subtle flavors of food that had been dulled by a two pack a day habit.
So she decided to start exercising. Every morning began with a brisk walk. It wasn’t long before she was waking earlier and walking three miles a day. Then jogging, and then running.
Eventually she joined a running group. The other runners were warm and welcoming. Friendships formed.
Her friends encouraged her to sign up for a half marathon. They would run as a group. To prepare for the challenge she changed her eating habits. Due to all the running and healthier eating she began to lose weight.
All of these changes took place within two years of her having stopped smoking. A small change in her life had unforeseen consequences. It altered her outlook, and pushed her in a new direction.
Two years previously she had been unhappy, smoking two packs a day, in poor health, and had almost no real friends. Now she was the picture of health, supported by friends, and optimistic about the future.
The right changes, even small ones, can shift our lives in dramatically new directions. These changes are similar to the slight push on the tiller of a boat. This causes the rudder to move ever so slightly one way or another, changing course of direction just a few degrees.
What sort of difference do these small changes make? Well, if you were sailing north from the southern Pacific Ocean it would make the difference between making landfall on the coast of Russia, versus the United States.
New Year resolutions that are well chosen can have a similar impact on your life, drastically altering where you find yourself in the coming years.
Resolutions Are Goals
Resolutions are simply goals. And goals that we stick to have tremendous power because they change life’s trajectory. They have the punch to rekindle old passions. To unveil forgotten potential, and spark a cascade of positive change.
We all need goals. Better yet, we need good goals. Those that lead us to form habits which, having become second nature, move our life forward even when we are not consciously striving to do so.
One example of such a habit is that of getting consistently getting a good night’s sleep. Nail this habit and you will see a change in improved energy, a brighter mood, and a clearer mind. Or the habit of reading leads us to expand our knowledge and view the world with a more informed perspective.
What we want to avoid are resolutions, or goals, that wither and die. These lead to a sense of frustration. Of being stuck. Powerless to change our own destiny.
Better to not make any New Year resolutions than to perpetually fail at keeping them. I know, sounds harsh. But there is no upside to going through an end of year ritual that teach us to expect failure.
The ‘take home’ message? Take aim at forming resolutions that you are willing to fully commit to fulfilling. Chose resolutions, no matter how small, that will enrich your life in some way.
When choosing a resolution think of a ‘why’ that makes it worth sacrificing time and energy to complete. The ‘why’ boils down to how it improves your life, or the lives of the people you most deeply care for.
How To Make Resolutions That Stick
So how do you stick to a New Year’s resolution?
By building a strategy that supports your success at reaching the goal you have set.
What’s that again? Let me elaborate.
Most resolutions are made with a great deal of sincerity, but very little detailed planning. To increase the odds of success, you need even more planning than sincerity. If a goal is not worth the time and effort needed to make a detailed plan for succeeding, then it is unlikely to be worth the even bigger effort it takes to reach that goal.
There are four simple steps you can follow that will make reaching any goal much more likely. Each step requires some earnest thought.
This ‘thinking through the details’ of how to reach your goal can be challenging. But if you’re willing to put in the effort, the rewards are great.
Let’s go over each step.
ONE Select a realistic goal. For example, if you want to learn a new language in the coming year, your goal might be to memorize three hundred words of that language. With that vocabulary having been built up you might also aim to have 50 different sentences with which you are fluent by the end of the year.
That boils down to learning six words a week, and about four sentences a month. How much of your time would that require each week? Thirty minutes? An hour at the most?
Much more doable than the loftier goal of learning to speak a foreign language fluently by the end of the year (sorry Rosetta Stone, but let’s deal with how much spare time most people really have each day). Learning 300 words, and 50 sentences is a realistic goal, even for a very busy person like you.
If you continued with that goal for several more years you would have at your command a vocabulary of well over a thousand words, and hundreds of sentences. That’s what they call pretty impressive in French (assez impressionnant), German (ziemlich beeindruckend), or Japanese (Kanari inshō-teki).
TWO Write down each step that you must take in order to succeed. Using the same example, we could easily identify several steps: buy a book, or a DVD language set, or enroll in an online course. Another step would be to set aside the time to study each day. A third step would be to identify the words you wished to learn, put them on a list and determine what words will be learned each week. Another step would be to decide how to reinforce the learning once you’ve committed a word to memory (e.g., flash cards that would be reviewed once weekly). You get the idea.
It’s important to be specific with your plan. Likewise, it is important to be committed to the plan.
For instance, if you planned to spend ten minutes on Monday, Wednesday and Friday evening reviewing the vocabulary words, you would mark that in your calendar.
It would need to be treated as an important appointment with yourself. Keeping that appointment should be a priority.
Lastly, I need to emphasize that staying with your new routine will be difficult at first. But once you get started, and you’ve stayed with it for two or three months, it becomes second nature. Like brushing your teeth, just part of your routine.
THREE Find a partner (if possible) to join you in reaching this goal. This will make it more fun, and you’ll have someone to encourage you, and help keep you on track.
FOUR Reward yourself along the way. As you make progress toward reaching your goal, stop to celebrate. For the example about learning a language, it would be good to celebrate after every 50 words are mastered. That’s a milestone! Time for a pat on the back and a double scoop of ice cream!
Are there any other ways you can think of to make resolutions that stick? It’s worth giving some thought – it just might be the thing that sends your life in an entirely new and more rewarding direction.
Beliefs That Hold You Back
I’ve listened to hundreds of men and women talk about their biggest fears and their most exciting triumphs. They have spoken about the things that bring the most joy into their lives, and that which creates clouds of discontent.
Through these privileged conversations, I have detected a common thread. A set of core of beliefs that lead to frustration and self-doubt. Conclusions that many people accept as basic truths about what needs to happen in life so that they can be happy. So they can be successful. That life can be richly enjoyed and filled with purpose.
When we rid ourselves of these unrealistic expectations, we become more receptive to the joys of life. We feel much freer.
Let’s look at just three of these toxic beliefs and what can be done to reduce their influence.
One: “I have to reach some goal, possess some object, win someone’s approval. What’s more, that needs to happen right now! If I don’t succeed right away, then I cannot be truly happy.”
Solution: Keep in mind that no one succeeds in consistently meeting major life goals in the timeframe that they would like.
Impatience is an impediment to savoring the moment, a barrier to happiness.
Many of us struggle with impatience: the feeling that we need to succeed RIGHT NOW in order to enjoy life. The first step to changing this unrealistic standard is to take a moment and recall those times when you failed to reach an important goal. It may have seemed that the world was crashing in on you. But, the fact is life did not end. Important lessons were learned. You may have even grown wiser and stronger because of the setback.
Reflecting on your past in this way will go a long way to challenging the idea that you must succeed at some endeavor within in short period of time. It may also convince you that your greatest strengths were built during times of struggle, rather than periods of success. Life is filled with both of these elements.
Two: “I deserve…” Then fill in the rest of the sentence. It may be “I deserve to have that job” or “I deserve to have that nicer car” or I deserve to have that person’s affection.” This thought is often followed by “If I don’t obtain it, then life is not fair.”
When we feel as though that which we deserve has been kept outside our reach, resentment is likely to grow.
And why wouldn’t it? If we deserve to have something, then naturally we are inclined to expect that we will eventually possess that thing/status/object that we deserve. But what happens when it remains outside our reach? Resentment takes root.
As Anne Lamott has written, “Expectations are resentments waiting to happen.”
Resentment does not make a merry companion on the road of life.
That does not mean it is wrong to have goals – far from it. Goals are important. That much is obvious to each of us. It is the unwarranted sense that we deserve to prize of winning a particular goal that should be guarded against.
Solution: Take a deep breath, focus on savoring the present: it is part of the journey, of ‘paying your dues.’ The current effort and toil will become part of your life story, and will make later success all the sweeter. Look around at what others have had to do to win in their careers and personal life. Get some perspective. Reaching big goals requires hard work. Setbacks along the way are inevitable.
After coming to terms with that truth, take the next step. Life does not revolve around any one of us. Be humble. Humility keeps one grounded, and provides much needed perspective. Part of this perspective includes accepting that many of the things we desire, are not necessarily things we deserve.
Three: “I’m not sure why, but deep inside I know that I’m lacking. In some way, I am just not enough. But I’m uncertain what is missing, so I’ll look around, maybe check out Instagram and Facebook to see what others have which make them so happy. Then I’ll know what’s missing within myself.”
Solution: My advice for someone who struggles with this distortion (closely related to the “Imposter Syndrome”) is to stop with the comparisons. Stay away from Facebook (go cold turkey, start a Facebook Anonymous group, whatever it takes, but stop comparing your life to that of others). Do a ‘cleansing fast’ of Instagram. Take a break, a very long break, from social media.
Now that you have more time in your life, devote it to building deep, genuine relationships with a small number of friends and family. They will value you for who you are, warts and all. These relationships should convince you that, like all of humanity, you really are lacking, and paradoxically you really are still ‘enough.’ Good enough to be loved, good enough to be valued, and good enough to bring joy into the lives of others.
To live life to the fullest we must overcome those obstacles that hold us back. Some of these obstacles include the thoughts we embrace. Thoughts we unthinkingly assume to be true.
Once we begin to notice these thoughts, and challenge them, new paths for pursuing a full and rewarding life begin to open up. This takes a little work, but the rewards make the effort well worthwhile.
Take a moment to see if any of the barriers to happiness listed above might apply to you. Don’t spend another day struggling with unrealistic expectations that hold you back. Push them aside, and see how much happier life can be.
How To Avoid Massive Teenage Drama, Save Your Sanity, and Stay Close To Your Teen
The mother sitting in front of me was in tears. She looked thoroughly defeated, but more than that, she was worried. Her husband, sitting next to her, sighed deeply and shook his head in anger. “We’ve been through this a million times. It’s like hitting your head against granite… and I’m just about done.”
Sitting across from them was their 16-year-old daughter Rachel. Her expression was one of contempt mixed with boredom. She sat slouched in an overstuffed office chair, arms folded across her chest, a thousand mile stare directed out the window.
Before entering high school Rachel had been an easygoing youngster who seemed to bounce through each day as though she hadn’t a care in the world. Her parents described her as having been “a bright, happy, and outgoing” girl.
Sometime in the middle of her freshman year, however, they noticed a change in their daughter. Their easygoing daughter began to sulk when asked to do chores, and the little arguments around inconsequential topics became more frequent. Shortly after this the school began to call letting the parents know that Rachel had skipped a class, or had been found leaving the high school campus with a group of other teens.
Around this same time Rachel’s mood became even more irritable. She withdrew frequently, spending hours behind a closed bedroom door. Getting her to talk at the dinner table had never been an issue in the past. Now the parents felt lucky if their daughter spoke up at all.
As the semester wore on it became clear that what their daughter wanted most was to be left alone - unless she needed to be driven somewhere, in which case the agreeable and sweet side of Rachel from times gone by suddenly reappeared.
The parents responded to these changes by telling their daughter how disappointed they were in her choices. When this did not have the desired impact they would shift to stern reprimands and punishment. Confrontation and tense exchanges started to punctuate each week.
Rachel’s behavior always showed brief improvement after one of these heated conflicts, but over time she learned to simply agree with whatever her parents said, and then immediately ignored all of their warnings.
Her mother and father unwittingly developed a routine. Each evening before going to bed the conversation would turn to the topic of Rachel’s most recent act of defiance. Back and forth they tossed ideas, expressed their worry, spoke of their anger and wondered what had gone so wrong. The home that two years before had been filled with laughter and a sense of intimacy was now an emotional war zone.
Anger and conflict had replaced the warmth and sense of oneness they had previously enjoyed. Rachel’s parents were confused. How could such a sweet girl transform into one who was so resentful and rebellious? How could their family life so quickly shift from being a haven of support to a crucible of conflict?
The ‘last straw’ occurred when the parents returned home early from a ‘date night’ and found that Rachel had invited a boy into the house for a date night of her own. Feeling desperate, the parents decided to call a therapist.
How To Save Your Teen (and yourself) From The Pain of Adolescence
The story of Rachel is a familiar one: a rebellious adolescent whose misbehavior creates years of emotional turmoil within a family. There are, however, ways of making this outcome less likely. Of putting the odds for a happy adolescence in your favor.
Preparation is the key. From the time a child is a toddler, parents need to focus on preparing their child to meet the challenges of adolescence.
To know how to prepare your child for adolescence you need to recognize what challenges your teen will face. Only by knowing what lies ahead can you also know how to prepare your child.
This is no different from any other aspect of life. If you are preparing to run in a marathon, your training will focus on endurance running. On the other hand, if you are preparing to compete in a chess tournament your training will involve studying common chessboard strategy, and improving your ability to think three or four moves ahead in the game. Running several miles each day in order to prepare for a chess match…. Well, not too helpful.
So what challenges do teens face? To get a clear answer to this question we need to realize that this period of time is the “launch pad” to adulthood. The youngster who recently enjoyed playing with Legos or dolls, is now immersed in the business of preparing for adulthood.
The teen’s job during these years is to:
Begin to make independent decisions
Select life goals
Grow more responsible
Find a path in life that fits with his/her abilities and interests
Develop mature and supportive relationships with peers
Learn how to understand and relate to the opposite sex
Figure out how to maintain a close relationship with parents while still becoming increasingly independent.
Deal appropriately to the rapid physical transformation of their body
There is no other time in an individual’s life where so many changes are required of an individual in such a short period of time. In case things are not already dicey enough, added to all of this are the following:
A massively heightened sense of insecurity (found in most teens)
A belief that the world revolves around oneself
A growing desire to distance oneself from parental influence
An influx of hormones.
This begins to sound like a wizard’s brew designed to drive both teens and parents to the limits of crazyland.
The good news. It doesn’t have to go down that road!
What Teens Need To Successfully Navigate The Adolescent Years
To travel through adolescence and succeed, to traverse these years and remain close to parents and experience minimal drama, a few basic skills must be firmly developed ahead of time. These skills, or aptitudes, include the ability to avoid falling into the following traps:
Giving in to peer pressure in order to be “cool” or popular
Acting on emotion rather than reason
Lack of focus – chasing the newest ‘shining object’
Feelings of profound inadequacy (which may lead to a poor choice friends, drug/alcohol abuse, self-harm)
Failure to consider the advice of trusted adults
Combative attitude toward parents
When the skills needed to avoid these pitfalls are taught from an early age, they are more likely to become deeply rooted in a child’s character. They become second nature.
This makes it easier to resist the pressures mentioned above that every teen faces.
How To Prepare For Adolescents
What can you do to help your child be ready for the challenges that lie ahead? Several things. Some easy, some not so much. But none of them requiring superhuman skills. Here is a brief list.
Let your child fail. Yes, I know, you’ve heard it before – but let it sink in. All of us parents know we need to do this, and all of us hate letting our children fail.
Even so, we know deep down that setbacks in life are inevitable. They are something each of us face from time to time. Learning to experience failure, and have it neither define nor defeat you, is how one grows stronger. It is an essential skill for living a successful life.
Be supportive but not enabling. When your child has fallen short in some way, it is helpful to provide support and perspective. When life has dealt them a cruel hand in some way be the shoulder they can lean on, but don’t treat them as a victim. Do this by reflecting confidence in their ability to bounce back, to overcome. Help them realize that they may be victimized by fate, or mistreated by friends they had trusted, but help them never lose sight that they are capable of overcoming those heartaches. Those that overcome hardships are victors, not victims.
Show your child that you have confidence in him/her. Confidence is learned. Children learn confidence by seeing it reflected in their parents’ appraisal. (That is one of the reasons for letting children try and fail – it reflects confidence in the child’s ability to persist and eventually win the goal at which he or she had taken aim). Confidence is also learned through experience. Steer your child toward activities within which he or she can excel.
Put setbacks in perspective, they are not the end of the world. When comforting your child in response to some setback in life, provide some perspective. This is not to say you should minimize the distress your child feels, but the events surrounding that hurt need to be realistically viewed. So you end up doing two things at once: comforting your child, and conveying the message “Toughen Up Buttercup.”
Place more emphasis on character than accomplishments (the effort put into getting an A or B grade is much more important than the grade itself). Character trumps ability. Without character ability is a hallow thing. A ship without a rudder. Your child’s persistence and effort is more important than the final outcome. The youngster who is naturally gifted and earns straight A’s, but puts forth little effort, is much less ready for adulthood than the child who earns straight B’s by putting forth consistent effort.
Build a relationship that welcomes your child’s ideas, even when those ideas conflict with your own. Speak with interest and genuine regard about your child’s ideas, even if they appear foolish. You need not pretend that they are accurate. You should, however, try your best to help your child understand that you welcome the opportunity to understand his or her perspective. In this way, when your youngster is a teen, he or she is likely to feel more comfortable openly discussing various topics with you.
Teach your child how to choose friends wisely. When children are young parents do best by helping them to choose their friends. These relationships will teach your child what to expect from peers as they grow older. They will also help to shape your child’s preference for the type of friendships formed later in life. When they are in their teens, these foundational friendships will act as guardrails to keep them on track. Badly chosen friendships will act as seductive invitations to behave in ways that have long term consequences.
Teach your child that it is better to follow his/her judgement/moral compass than it is to win the approval of others. Celebrate every instance of your child following his/her conscience. When faced with the enormous peer pressures of the adolescent crowd, conscience will be the ultimate bulwark against regrettable decisions. Spend time building that bulwark to be as strong as possible.
Teach self-control. Performing household chores, not allowing temper tantrums in older children, developing good manners, sticking to routines even when it is difficult, are all ways in which children learn self-control. When confronted with the explosive cocktail of adolescent stress and hormones, self-control is a stalwart friend.
Emphasize respect for authority even while emphasizing independent thinking skills. Children who respect authority figures develop a stronger sense of confidence than those who constantly rebel. They have fewer problems at home and in school. Life is sweeter.
Nevertheless, there needs to be a balance. Your child needs to learn to think independently. To understand that authority figures can be respected, and still be mistaken. This is a process. A gradual process.
By helping your child acquire this perspective the teen years will be relatively free from the unnecessary travails that arise when an adolescent feels obligated to rebel against authority figures.
Teach your child to be grateful. Gratitude provides perspective, instills a sense of connectedness to others (those to whom we are grateful), and encourages generosity. Children who learn gratitude are happier, and this acts as a barrier to the discontent that afflicts many teens.
The teen years can be a wonderful time of growth, or a tumultuous period of stress for the adolescent and his/her family. To make the most of these years requires preparation. Specific skills need to be developed that prepare the teen to meet the challenges that will inevitably be faced. Parents who, early on, begin to develop these skills in their children are much more likely to have teens that emerge from adolescence ready to take their place within the world of adults.
You can do this…. Start now.
Anxiety… And Waiting To Hear Back
Anxiety is a common problem that everyone deals with from time to time. But texting anxiety? Really… Is that a thing?
Until last week I had never even considered the anxiety that might be attached to texting. Then a question came up from a journalist asking how best to deal with ‘texting anxiety.’ Hmmm. I must confess this is not something with which I wrestle. Not to say I’m too good, too enlightened to be bothered by such trifling matters. Heck, there was a time when getting the right mix of cavendish and burly pipe tobacco could cause me to break out in a cold sweat (it’s more important than you may think, and requires the nimble imagination of an alchemist to get it just right).
But texting anxiety had not come up on my radar. So I took this as a challenge to think about some simple ways one could deal with the matter. In case you’re interested, follow this link to Southern Living.
Facing Heartache & Pursuing Happiness
I’ve been a therapist for many years now. Over the course of those years people of various backgrounds, struggling with a variety of different challenges, have sat across from me.
Some have been young, others old. Some were full-time homemakers, others were skilled tradesmen, students, or unemployed. Still others were involved in successful practices involving medicine, the law, or business.
A number of these individuals had grown up in wonderfully supportive homes, while others had struggled growing up in abusive, chaotic and horribly dysfunctional families.
Pretty early on in my career I began to notice that regardless of one’s history, or present circumstances, the people who succeeded in building a happy and full life had certain traits in common. For some people, these traits, or characteristics, seem to have developed easily. Perhaps they were winners in the genetic lottery. For most, however, the traits that helped them weather life’s storms, and create happier lives, appeared to be hard won.
Today I want to look at just one of these traits. Of all the qualities that add to one’s ability to build a full and happy life, this one may be the most difficult to build. But not impossible. Far from it. With persistence, and continued practice, this trait will take root in one’s character, and a richer life will be crafted as a result.
Assuming responsibility for one’s happiness is one of the top key traits I’ve seen in those who appear most fulfilled in life. This is true whether the person is currently struggling with grief, depression, anxiety or some other distress. It is not that these people don’t recognize the severity of the hardships that bear down on them: they do not view life through rose colored glasses. Very much the opposite. They are realists to the core.
Instead of glossing over the heartaches of life, they squarely acknowledge the pain of each setback. Having down so, however, they also take full responsibility for the task of then moving forward and building a happy life as best as their abilities will allow.
A more natural reaction to have in the face of great heartache, and one that many of us may have indulged in on occasion, is to exclaim “If only XYZ were different, then I could be happy.”
This way of thinking is attractive because it often contains at least a kernel of truth. If your boss had been fair, you really would have received that promotion, and that truly would have made life much better. If that other driver had not run the red light you would not have been injured, and would not now be facing months of physical therapy. If only….
It’s interesting to note, however, that those who manage to build happy lives despite these sort of hardships do not spend a lot of time dwelling on the “If only” scenarios of life. Sure, they recognize when life has dealt them a harsh challenge. They might momentarily become sad, grief stricken or angry. But this is does not become an entrenched state of mind. They find no permanent comfort in viewing life from that perspective. It is not a mental state where they set up camp.
More often than not, when they do get dragged into those mental marsh lands, they find ways to dig themselves out. They continue to look for paths to higher ground where they can stand on the firmer road of hope, friendship, and a life of shared purpose.
What fuels these men and women, in part, is a sober acceptance of the reality that only one person can ultimately change their life. Only one person has responsibility for their happiness. That one person, of course, is them self.
An example of this approach to life may help drive the point home. Some years ago I had been talking to a friend, Chris, at dinner when the conversation turned to the topic of his father. Chris mentioned that his dad (let’s call him Jack) had a difficult childhood. As a teen growing up in the Midwest in the 1950s, Jack unexpectedly found himself in a compromising situation. Sizing he situation up, he quickly decided that leaving the state in search of friendly environs would redound to his great advantage. Jack had heard that California was the land of opportunity, and so a young man in his teens he struck out on his own and headed off to the Golden State.
After arriving in California he bounced around from job to job, even spending some time as a professional boxer. Eventually, however, he decided that learning a trade was the way to carve out a more secure financial future. Jack figured that becoming an electrician would be a good idea: it provided a decent income, and work would always be plentiful for someone with that skill set.
Getting an electrician license required several years of apprenticeship. The rewards of being in that trade would not come easily. Even so, Jack knew that the payoff would be worth the price and apprenticed himself to a local electrician.
After several years of working long hours for very little money, Jack went to the government office that issued electrician licenses. After patiently waiting in line, he stepped up to the licensure desk where a neatly dressed woman sat. “Good morning mam. I’m here to apply for my electrician’s license.”
The woman looked puzzled and remained quiet for a moment before saying “You can’t get an electricians license.” Jack thought she had misunderstood. “I’ve got all my documents right here. All the hours I’ve apprenticed. It’s all in order.” He politely placed his paperwork on the desk.
Without looking down at the documents the women calmly replied “It’s not a matter of how many hours you’ve apprenticed. That’s not it at all. We don’t issue electrician licenses to negroes.”
Chris finished telling the story. I thought for a moment, then commented about how the injustice of the situation would cause me to be both angry and bitter.
It seemed a reasonable sentiment. After all, without any just cause his father had wasted several years of his life, hours of labor, and the application of his skills pursuing a goal that was foreclosed by blatant bigotry. I started to elaborate but my protests were cut short. Chris leaned back in his chair and began laughing.
Smiling and shaking his head in disbelief he said “Well, you don’t know my father. He is one of the least bitter men I’ve ever known. Nope, if he was bitter he didn’t let it stick to him. Instead he just walked away and began to think about other trades he could pursue. Didn’t take him long to land on the idea of selling real estate… and he ended up doing extremely well. I mean really, really well. My dad wasn’t one to let others determine his happiness. He took charge of his own life.”
That story struck a note. Chris’ father had not justified the bigotry that foreclosed the possibility of being an electrician. But neither did he let it define him, consume his thoughts, curtail his pursuit of success, or dampen his happiness. He focused on what he could do to carve out a life that was meaningful, full, and satisfying. As a result, he was not only freed from bitter resentment, but emotionally unburdened so as to fully enjoy the success that his continued hard work and skills would eventually bring about.
Whether we are struggling with gross injustice, misfortune, illness, or the ramifications of our own poor choices, the final responsibility for a life well lived ultimately rests on our own shoulders.
It’s true that some of us face much tougher challenges than others. The disparity in the hardships we face can seem unfair. Even so, this does not alter the reality of how we secure a full and happy life: by accepting that no matter the challenges we face, it is up to each of us to build a full and happy life.
Those that I’ve known who do this well would not claim that it is easy. Many of them have been faced with terrible losses and setbacks. Their lives marked, at times, by great heartache. But even so they push on, not letting themselves remain focused on the pain, but relentlessly searching for ways to drink in whatever joy they can find in life.
This does not erase the sorrows that invariably must be faced. But for those who adopt this approach, it affords a road that more often than not leads to a much brighter future.
Five Truths about Relationships That All Married Couples Need to Understand
Recently I was asked what the core principles are for making a strong marriage. Interesting question. These sort of questions fascinate me. Trying to identify the “core”, or “basic”, foundations of something requires drilling down below the froth, and discovering those things that cannot, or should not, be ignored.
After having listened to the life stories of so many people over the course of the past three decades, I found it pretty easy to come up with a short list of core truths every couple should keep in mind (no surprise, I also have a long list).
To be thoroughly candid, my list is not solely informed by my experience as a therapist. Each of the foundations I list below are also supported by research. But, as is often the case with psychology, research simply confirms what your grandparents already knew and took for granted.
So here we go, five truths about marriage that every husband and wife should keep in mind.
#1 Your spouse is not perfect. So what? Great marriages are not made by having the perfect spouse. If that were the case, there would be no great marriages.
Instead, great marriages are made when two people are reasonably compatible, when each looks for the good in the other, and when there is mutual support, forgiveness, and respect.
No one finds the perfect spouse. We all have our shortcomings. Dwelling on the imperfections of your spouse poisons the relationship. Learn to let the little things go. If you must focus on something, choose to focus on the good qualities of your husband or wife.
#2 Your spouse cannot make your life complete. Many young couples have the unrealistic expectation that the marital relationship will act to “fill in”, or “mend”, the broken parts of their life. To some extent this does occur, but it is not complete.
If you enter marriage believing that this wonderful person you have married will be your best friend, counselor, motivational coach, substitute father/mother figure, etc., you will be disappointed. Resentment will eventually take root. When it does, great unhappiness is not far behind.
Instead of insisting that your spouse fill all of these functions, rely on friends, family, and yourself. By reaching out in this way you live a fuller life, and have a happier marriage.
After all, is it truly realistic to think that your spouse can meet all of your needs? Of course not. No one would even voice such an expectation. But many people unintentionally and subconsciously fall into the trap of having this mindset. Sadly, they may not come to realize this until after the pressure such demands create has resulted in a divorce.
Each of us (no matter the relationship: spouse, parent, child, friend) needs to take a sober look at our expectations. When they turn out to be unrealistic, let them go. You and your spouse will will be happier, and paradoxically, your relationship will grow closer.
#3 As is true in life more generally, you get out of your marriage what you put into it. If you invest time/thought/energy into growing a stronger and healthier relationship, you are likely to be rewarded with a terrific relationship.
That is not a guarantee, but a principle (just the same as if you exercise and eat right you are likely to be healthier and live longer than if you never exercise or eat properly).
The effort you put into your marriage can be made more effective by candidly talking with your spouse about what is going well in the relationship. You’ll then learn what can be focused upon even more to help your marriage flourish.
Also, take the time to patiently talk about what is not going so well. Honestly consider how each of you can take steps to shore up weak areas in the relationship.
Lastly, give one another grace: let the little things go. Pick your battles.
Have this talk once a month. It’s important: put it on your calendar.
#4 Marriage is somewhat like an investment account. The more you put into building a strong connection with your spouse (showing kindness, support, affection, and respect), the more the emotional bank account grows. Then, when you really miss the mark (forget about an anniversary, or impulsively purchase that must have item without your spouse’s approval), there will be sufficient ‘emotional funds’ to cover the loss your relationship sustains.
This approach must not be used as a ploy to allow for misbehavior – that just comes across as manipulative.
Be intentional about building intimacy, good memories, shared successes, and so forth. Be a pro-active investor in building a strong emotional bank account.
#5 Love is a verb, not a noun. Most people report that one of the important reasons they chose to get married was that they were ‘in love’ with their spouse. They had deep feelings of affection, admiration and affection for each other.
Feelings, however, will wax and wane. There will be times in a marriage when these feelings are very weak, or altogether missing. Some men and women, faced with these weakened feelings, will then ask “Why should I stay married if I don’t love my husband/wife any longer?”
Someone who has this view of love may very well end up with multiple marriages. Feelings are fickle things; do not base your marriage on the unstable foundation of feelings.
Recognize instead that love involves more than feelings. That at its heart love is a commitment to do what is best for another, and that this commitment then needs to be expressed in daily actions that are supportive, affirming and respectful.
When this approach is taken consistently, the feelings of love that may wane at times will eventually return, mature, and root more deeply in the relationship.
Say Good Bye To Social Anxiety
In a therapy group for young teens that I was leading, there was a very shy girl name Jocelyn (not her real name). When Jocelyn came to her first group meeting she refused to introduce herself. Sitting at the table with other girls, she looked down at her lap and slouched forward, her hair hanging like dark ribbons covering her face.
Jocelyn met the diagnostic criteria for what is called social anxiety disorder.
Like many with social anxiety Jocelyn was very unhappy with how isolated this made her feel. She realized that she was missing out on enjoying friendships, school events, involvement in sports and clubs, and so much else.
But the fear of taking those initial steps to alter her behavior outside the therapy room continued to hold her back. Fear is like that - a heavy ball and chain that often makes progress in any direction seem impossible.
So it was no surprise that after the first month in group therapy Jocelyn had not changed a great deal. Despite the occasional smile when another group members made a joke, or a quick glance in my direction when I had said something that hit home, she mainly just sat silently through every group meeting.
Several months later, however, by the end of her time in group, Jocelyn was a very different teen. She had become a gregarious as a greeter at Harrah’s Casino.
Now she would come to the clinic for her group therapy meeting but spend ten minutes hitting the staff up to buy coupon books for her school. Or, she might attend group wearing a plastic mustache and western hat just to a laugh out of the other teens.
Most importantly, Jocelyn began to talk more freely about her life, the ups and downs of school, and the struggles that went on at home.
What had happened to create this change?
That, my friend, is the million dollar question. The transformation this young girl experienced is not unusual. There are well understood steps that nearly anyone can take to gain control over their social anxiety. If you have social anxiety, or are simply very shy, these steps are for you - and describing these steps is what I’ll be focused on today.
But before we get to looking at how you can beat social anxiety, let’s take a quick look at how widespread this form of anxiety has become, and the sort of impact it makes on one’s life.
How Big A Problem Is Social Anxiety?
Almost 18 percent of adults in the United States have some form of anxiety (that is nearly 40 million people). Of these, social anxiety is the most common fear that people acknowledge themselves to be struggling. Approximately 7 percent of adults struggle with social anxiety (sufficiently severe that it significantly interferes with their lives).
Nearly one third of adults continue to have social anxiety for ten years or longer, and most never turn to a mental health professional for help.
The impact of social anxiety is surprising. You might be tempted to think that it simply means the person who struggles with this fear stays away from parties, and has fewer friends than other people who are more outgoing.
It goes well beyond those mild constraints. When social anxiety takes root early in life it can lead to being ostracized by peers.
Children who are strongly marginalized early in life tend to remain at the social margins of their peer group throughout their years in grammar school, junior high and even high school. These children also end up being a much greater risk for school dropout, teen-age pregnancy, drug/alcohol abuse and delinquent behavior.
The bottom line is that social anxiety can be life changing. For adults who have had an otherwise healthy psychological history this form of anxiety robs them of living life more fully. They have fewer opportunities to develop a variety of friends, and to fewer times of experiencing a sense of belonging within their community.
For children, social anxiety deprives them of important life experiences that prepare them for navigating relationships in adulthood. Children also miss out of the confidence building experience of being appreciated by peers, and successfully finding common ground with those that come from a different background.
The impact of social anxiety goes beyond being a slight inconvenience. For many, it is a major obstacle to fulfilling their potential.
Is There A Way To Cure Social Anxiety?
Treatment for social anxiety is remarkably effective, and simple. But I want to be sure to be very clear. Although the process of overcoming social anxiety is simple, for many it is also very difficult. Just as running a marathon is simple, but difficult.
For the most part the treatment of social anxiety involves learning two new skill sets: social skills, and relaxation skills. After learning these skills, then another phase of therapy takes place: practicing in real life settings. That practice must occur over and over again. That is how the anxiety is finally stomped out, and likewise how social skills become second nature.
You can do this – nearly everybody can do this, but it takes time and a lot of persistence.
What’s more, you may be able to do this without seeing a therapist. Certainly it is helpful to have a counselor who coaches you through the steps. But many people will find that even without that help, they are able to make progress on their own.
The main idea is this - if you learn the skills needed to successfully manage social situations, and combine these with the skills needed to control your anxiety, you can start to experience rewarding social interactions in the very type of situations that had previously caused you to be uncomfortable.
As you continue to have more of these positive experiences, a sense of confidence begins to take root. Social skills continue to grow. Anxiety continues to get less and less.
This entire process may take a few months, or it could take longer. Either way it’s important to understand that it does not require perfection, only a reasonable plan, and heaps of persistence.
How About The Plan Stan?
Let’s look at the specifics of what a plan for overcoming social anxiety might look like.
I mentioned this before, but it is worth repeating. Becoming good at navigating social situations is a skill, and like any skill it takes practice. The more you practice the easier it becomes to go into social situations and not become overly anxious.
In fact, with enough practice you will eventually start to enjoy social activities that you now avoid.
The less you practice, however, the slower your progress. Sometimes the result of practicing very little is that you begin to feel that progress is impossible.
That can be discouraging, and might even cause you to give up altogether.
Don’t go there. Practice enough so that you make progress, so that you advance enough to keep your motivation up.
It can also be a huge help to have one or two people that support you. That way, when progress is slow, there will be someone to cheer you on.
Don’t give up and assume that this is just the way life has to be – that’s not true. Now is the time to punch anxiety squarely in the face. Send it running. You can do this. I have worked with many people who have succeeded in overcoming anxiety. For most of these people, their success was mostly a matter of how much work, and persistence, they were willing to put into the battle. And yes, many also had support from family and friends along the way (but not all).
If you are tired of missing out on life because of your anxiety, and you are ready to open the door to a new future, the following guideline is for you.
The most effective approach to taming social anxiety is based on the same proven method used by therapists to help people control most anxieties. This strategy involves gradually immersing yourself in those situations you fear. Doing this in a well thought out way, starting with small social challenges and slowly building up to more difficult ones works best.
And, as scary as this may sound to someone with social anxiety, it really does work.
Below are six simple steps that walk you through the process that can help you break the grip of social anxiety. Put some thought into how you want to approach each step. Expect it to be difficult, but expect to see progress as well.
When you run into a setback (everyone does), take a moment to regroup: then charge ahead once again. Before you know it, you will find that social gatherings no longer create the fear that they had once evoked. Later, after basking in the glory of your success, send me an email: would love to hear from you.
Six Step Plan For Beating Social Anxiety
Choose some type of group situation that normally causes mild to moderate social anxiety. Make plans to attend.
Now identify the specific concerns you have about going to that event (e.g., “People will think I'm odd”, “Others will reject me”, “I won't have anything interesting to say”).
Take a moment to judge how realistic these worries really are (probably unrealistic, or at least greatly exaggerated). You may find it helpful to use a form that organizes your thoughts.
Write down the worry, and next to that write a sentence describing how realistic that concern really is when looked at objectively. Review the list frequently prior to attending whatever gathering you have in mind.
Select a modest goal for the start.
To begin this process you want to start by going to a social event that would normally cause you to have mild to moderate social anxiety. The more severe your anxiety the more modest your goal should be. For example, if you are going to a party and you only know the host/hostess, your goal might be to attend for 30 minutes and briefly meet three or four people.
Learn a basic skills to help reduce feelings of anxiety.
One of the most common of these skills involves taking a deep breath, then slowly exhaling while imagining a relaxing scene.
Sounds simple doesn’t it? It is, and the more you practice the more effective this technique becomes. The trick to making this technique work well is to practice it for ten minutes a day.
Find a comfortable chair and take a seat. Once you are settled in, try to vividly imagine the social setting you have chosen to attend. Let your anxiety build until you feel at least moderately uncomfortable, then take a slow deep breath. Don’t hold it, but instead slowly exhale.
At the same time that you are doing this you should be imagining a relaxing scene. Put yourself as deeply into that scene as your imagination allows.
For example, if you imagined yourself being on a beach you would then fill in the details. The color of the sand, water and sky. Likewise, you would feel the warmth of the sun on your shoulders, the warm grainy sand under your feet, the sound of waves, and the smell of salt air. Use as many senses as possible (the sights, sounds, feel, smell).
Take a few more slow deep breaths, and when the anxiety has largely ebbed away, go back to thinking of the social setting again. Let the anxiety rise, then shift back to the deep breathing/relaxing scene exercise.
Repeat several times, always ending your practice session at the point where you are thinking of the relaxing scene. With a little practice the relaxation response will become second nature when you take a deep breath.
Learn how to start a conversation.
Keep in mind, when people first meet they expect the conversation to be superficial. You are in the process of learning about one another, determining if there are ‘points of connection.’ These are areas of mutual interests. This might involve similarities in how you spend your free time, or where you grew up, professional goals, the schools you attended or the schools your children attend.
Many socially anxious people struggle with the thought that they must have something unusually interesting to offer in the conversation. That’s terrific when that is the case, but for most mortals it is a matter of exchanging pleasantries in a way that shows genuine interest and warmth.
Now let’s look at the practical side of starting a conversation. The list of ways to do this is nearly endless. Often the way you decide to start will depend upon the specific setting in which you find yourself. Even so, here are some softballs that work in many circumstances.
Say something pleasant:
“What a great dinner, I especially liked the cheesecake”
“I thought that was a terrific talk, what did you think?”
“What a beautiful sunset, it remind me of the times I’ve seen the sun reflecting off the clouds when flying in my personal jet”… OK, no need to go that far.
Mention a mutual friend or acquaintance
“How did you and David meet?”
“Isn’t that great that Rebecca got that promotion?”
Talk about the weather (I know, this is a tired overture, but it works)
“I’ll be glad when the Fall weather arrives. Even though I love jet skiing on the lake, nothing beats camping in the Autumn time”
“This weather is gorgeous isn’t it? I wish it would stay this way all year.”
Compliment the person on something (but don’t overdo it)
“Great job coaching the soccer team this year. I really appreciate all the time and effort you put into it.”
“Beautiful house. I especially like the way you’ve landscaped your backyard. Was it difficult to find that many plastic flamingos and yard gnomes?”
Ask about their motives or background – stick with me, this will make sense
“Oh, so you are a police officer. What attracted you to that line of work?”
“I can tell from your Oakland Raiders cap, jersey, and beer mug that you are a Raiders Nation fan. How did you become such a big Raiders backer?”
“That was a delicious dinner. How did you learn to cook so well?”
These and many other topics offer easy opportunities to start a conversation. The key to being able to effectively use these themes is to practice ahead of time.
Practice ahead of time? How weird is that? OK, maybe, but if you practice asking these questions when you are alone you will find it much easier to ask them in a very natural way when you are in one of those social settings that make you anxious.
The ‘take home’ message…… go ahead and practice!
Important Side Note
Before moving on, keep in mind that you don’t have to ‘get it just right’ to start a conversation. What you say is only a small part of making a first impression. How you present yourself is much more important.
That means you want to pull your shoulders back, smile, and look the person in the eye (don’t stare, that’s creepy, but do have good eye contact). Moreover, as you talk don’t be afraid to modulate your voice, and show a little enthusiasm and warmth.
Do the things I’ve just listed and you’ll become a pro at conversing with others. Honest.
Learn how to end a conversation.
It helps to have an excuse for ending conversations. Yes, you must have an exit plan.
Without an exit plan you will feel trapped, and if you feel trapped you are left with counting on the other person to end the conversation, or having it die a slow lingering death.
Ending a conversation is even easier than starting one. For example, you can end the conversation by saying "I need to go ask (host/hostess) about something, but it's a pleasure to have met you."
Or, “I think I’ll go freshen my drink. I hope you enjoy the party.”
Or, “Gosh, it’s getting late. I need to call home and make sure the babysitter isn’t having a party at my house again.”
Or, “It’s been great talking with you. I hope we have a chance to meet again.”
Be sure to memorize and rehearse some exit lines prior to attending the social event you have targeted as your first goal. I know, you’re thinking, “You’ve got to be kidding me, I’m supposed to rehearse an exit strategy?”
Well, yes. Being nervous, and in the middle of a conversation, is not the time to test your creative social skills. Rehearse your exit pitch.
This will save you from staying in a conversation way longer than you would like. It will also save you from saying something you regret such as “My bladder is talking to me right now. Well, actually screaming. So I’ll be running along. Tootles.” Rehearse one or two excuses that provide for a graceful exit.
After Action Report
After you have attended the social gathering, and are back home feeling more relaxed, take a minute to review how things went.
Identify where you did well. Then ask yourself how you can build on that success?
Also ask yourself where you did not do as well as you realistically expected. Come up with one or two things that would help you improve in this area (keep in mind, often it is just a matter of more practice).
Then select a new social challenge and get ready to grow ever more confident.
As with Step 1, using a form to organize your thoughts can be very helpful (click the button to the side for check list).
Putting social anxiety in it’s place is as simple as following the six steps we just reviewed.
It’s the same way that I helped the little girl in group therapy (mentioned at the start of this post) overcame her fears.
She learned to relax enough to face her fears. She also learned a handful of key social skills. Once these two steps were completed she was ready to create new positive experiences by forcing herself to interact with other children.
That little girl learned something important: interacting with others did not make the world fall apart. More importantly, she learned that other children enjoyed her company.
The same thing can happen with you.
The six steps I’ve outlined for overcoming social anxiety really are effective. Do they work for everyone? No, but they do work for most people.
This means they very likely will also work for you.
There are times when it may be necessary for you to enlist the help of a therapist in order to fine-tune this approach. Or, it may be that you simply want the benefit of having an expert to help you along the way.
Whether you use a DIY approach, or work with a therapist, the main thing is to take the leap and begin to free yourself from the burden of social anxiety.
Life is too short to be held back by your fears. There are people whose lives would be better for knowing you. But that won’t happen if you let social anxiety hold you back.
Don’t wait, don’t make excuses, don’t put it off for another day and a better time. Take the plunge. Jump in and get started on a new chapter of life.
Becoming The Best At What You Do
How great would you feel if you could dramatically and quickly increase some skill or area of expertise in your life? What doors might open that are now closed? Or, at a more basic level, how much more fun might life be if you could become much better at the things you love doing?
Max Deutsch is a 25-year-old entrepreneur who decided to challenge himself to ‘master’ one new skill a month over the course of a year. These challenges included solving a Rubik’s Cube in under 20 seconds; playing a 5-minute improvisational blues guitar solo; hold a 30-minute conversation in Hebrew, and more. In none of these areas did he already possess significant skills.
After having succeeded in meeting each of the first eleven challenges Max came to the final test… learn to play chess well enough to compete with, and defeat, the top rated chess player in the world, Magnus Carlsen.
I won’t spoil the ending of the story, but the important point is how Mr. Deutsch prepared himself for the match. That is, how he approached the task of rapidly increasing his prowess at chess (and each of those other challenges he had set for himself). Although the particulars of this approach are found in the previous link, the more general principles guiding his approach are what you really need to know.
Why? Because this approach can help anyone dramatically increase his or her skills in whatever area of life it is applied. It still requires time and effort (you’ve got to pay your dues) but the learning curve becomes accelerated. Put somewhat differently, using these principles means you get a lot more ‘bang for your buck’ from each hour of practice time.
The Road To Peak Performance
So what is the secret to winning such rewards? PRACTICE.
Not just any type of practice, but deliberate practice. Anders Ericsson, a professor of psychology in Florida, is a leading researcher in the field of skill acquisition. He coined the term ‘deliberate practice’ to distinguish it from regular practice.
In regular practice for sports, music and other areas where success requires developing a high level of skill, there is a tendency for many people to “go through the motions” of repetitive routines. This is often justified by the idea that such repetition will develop “muscle memory”, or it will “lay down a solid foundation.”
Partly, this is true. But for most people that approach leads to an early stagnation of skills, and they never come close to developing to their real potential.
What makes matters worse is that after someone acquires basic skills in some area of interest, they are then likely to spend more of their practice time focused on whatever abilities fall within their ‘comfort zone.’
The new guitar player, for example, having learned several basic chords is likely to focus much of his practice time continuing to play songs requiring those finger positions that have already been learned. The more challenging aspects of the guitar (barre chords, finger picking) will receive less attention.
Why does this happen? The answer is straight forward. The new guitar player derives more enjoyment from practicing those skills that provide immediate enjoyment, or a sense of competency. When the young guitarist plays familiar chords and the result is a familiar melody, gladness and great joy fill his heart.
On the other hand, when the earnest young guitarist plays barre chords, or attempts an adagio, the resulting sounds can be similar to a feral animal being caged and tormented. Not pleasant, and this fills the young guitarist with great sadness and a sense of futility.
At this point in the learning curve it becomes much more rewarding to focus one’s practice time on those skills that have developed nicely. Those skills that make the would be guitarist feel that progress has been made.
The unfortunate consequence of focusing practice time on one’s strengths is that overall progress begins to taper off. An early plateau is reached. If one strategically includes a focus on building skill where weaknesses remain, however, the learning curve looks very different.
In this case, learning continues to advance. Often in a series of step wise progressions wherein gains are made, followed by a brief leveling off before further gains are then made.
It takes persistence, a modicum of confidence, and a steady grasp of long-term rewards, in order to focus one’s practice sessions on shoring up weaknesses. Focusing on strengths is much more rewarding in the present, but as you can see from the graph above, in the long run it keeps you from living up to your potential.
This principle applies throughout many areas of our lives. Consider the financial impact of this dynamic when applied to family budgeting. Most of us are strongly tempted to focus on immediate rewards, and as a result spend money that could go toward the future on things that provide pleasure in the present. That may include new cars, clothes, large homes, vacations, dinners out, and so forth.
Other souls, those who have trained themselves to be more Spartan in their immediate indulgences, put aside large sums of their earnings and apply them to investments with the aim of enhancing their future financial success. These are the people who are most likely to have acquired a tidy ‘nest egg’ sometime later in life. As Dave Ramsey would say, they have “lived like no one else so that later, they can live and give like no one else.”
The principle is the same whether it be applied to finances, health, exercise or the practice of a skill. By overly focusing on what is immediately gratifying one ends up forfeiting greater rewards in the future.
What Is Deliberate Practice?
Deliberate practice takes the opposite approach to ‘practice as usual.’ It contains the following components.
1. Focus intensely on a small piece of the full skill set that you wish to acquire. Over time each component of the skill set will be focused upon with great intensity, and the various parts then integrated into a whole. In judo, for example, this could require the athlete to spend several weeks practicing just the initial step and body positioning required when executing a shoulder throw. After expertise is acquired on this part of the throw, the judo player then focuses on the skills needed to grasp an opponent’s arm and gi. Eventually all components of the throw will be mastered and integrated.
2. Spend more time training on areas of weakness than areas of strength. For example, the aspiring singer will spend more time learning to hit those notes that she find difficult to reach rather than focusing on those songs with melodies that are well within her current abilities.
3. Practice with intentionality. Take the time to consider what goal is to be reached, then break down the skills required to reach that goal into a sequence of steps. The focus of practice sessions is then placed on developing mastery of these specific skills in the order outlined by the sequenced steps. As the number of skills that have been mastered increases, you begin to integrate them one with another (just as was described in the example of learning a Judo throw).
4. Feedback is required to practice most effectively. This can be provided by a coach, tutor, or self-observation (e.g., if your goal is to become a strong public speaker, you might record yourself giving a talk to an empty room, then listen to the recording and make notes on how your speech could be improved, and based on this self-feedback give the speech again).
Practicing without feedback is similar to trying to navigate across the ocean without looking at the stars, or referring to a compass. Feedback is necessary in order to make adjustments that lead you to your destination. That’s true whether your destination is the other side of the world, mastering a new dance step, or making a gourmet meal.
Throughout my career, I’ve seen that people are nearly always capable of achieving more than they realize. When motivation, support, and a plan for moving forward are present, people will often surprise themselves by achieving what they had thought impossible.
My challenge is that you pick a goal (it need not be lofty goal, just one that appeals to you). Then set a date to begin working toward the goal. Also set aside blocks of time throughout the week that will be devoted to practicing. Use the deliberate practice approach for developing your skills, and watch your progress steadily climb.
Once you see how well this approach works with one goal, you’ll want to use it on other goals as well. After a time, it will become a well-honed skill that you can apply to many areas of your life.
Say Goodbye To Insomnia
Have you ever lay awake at night, exhausted, tired, and ready for sleep but found that your body would not cooperate? You were ready to saw some logs but your brain stubbornly refused to switch into ‘sleep mode?’
If so, you are not alone. Sixty million Americans struggle with insomnia at some time throughout any given year. For many it is a chronic problem with a huge impact. A lack of sleep can ruin your attention span, make emotions swing like the lead singer in Rumba band, ruin attempts to stay with a healthy diet, torpedo efforts to exercise and just generally make you feel as though you are one of the cast of the Walking Dead.
Chronic Health Conditions Related to Lack of Sleep
A lack of sleep is not just inconvenient, or frustrating, but also is associated with an increased risk of significant health problems.
Research shows that those who sleep less than seven hours a night are more likely to develop coronary heart disease, experience a heart attack or stroke, have arthritis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, asthma and diabetes.
In addition to these health concerns, diminished sleep has a huge impact on one’s performance. As you can see from the graph below, performance is greatly diminished over the course of just a few days when one is unable to get enough sleep.
This graph shows the number of mistakes people made, on average, when faced with a simple task over the course of seven days. Some individuals were allowed to sleep 9 hours a day, other 7 hours, still others 5 and 3 hours respectively.
By the end of the week those people who had gotten by on 3 hours of sleep each night made 18 times more mistakes than those who had been getting 9 hours of sleep. Even those who had slept 5 hours a night ended up, by week’s end, making 6 times more mistakes than the group who had slept 9 hours per night. The 5 hours/night group also made nearly twice as many mistakes as the 7 hours/night group.
What might the trend look like if it were extended beyond one week? Perhaps for a month, two months, or a year? Such long periods of poor sleep are not unusual for someone suffering with insomnia.
What Causes Insomnia?
There are multiple reasons why people develop insomnia. Some of these are physical, (e.g., hormonal changes), others are psychological (e.g., stress/anxiety), and still others are environmental (e.g., sleeping next to someone who snores).
Medical News Today provides a nice summary.
“Insomnia is commonly caused by:
Disruptions in circadian rhythm - jet lag, job shift changes, high altitudes, environmental noise, extreme heat or cold.
Psychological issues - bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety disorders, or psychotic disorders.
Medical conditions - chronic pain, chronic fatigue syndrome, congestive heart failure, angina, acid-reflux disease (GERD), chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, asthma, sleep apnea, Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases, hyperthyroidism, arthritis, brain lesions, tumors, stroke.
Hormones - estrogen, hormone shifts during menstruation.
Other factors - sleeping next to a snoring partner, parasites, genetic conditions, overactive mind, pregnancy.”
WHAT CAN YOU DO TO FLIP THE SLEEP SWITCH TO “ON”?
If you struggle with getting to sleep, it is important to know that there are many ways to cure this problem. Prescription medication is one of the most common solutions. The major shortcoming of taking this route to getting some sleep is that medications usually offer only a short-term fix. When you stop taking the medication, insomnia frequently returns. Solutions that do offer longer lasting restful sleep, and don’t include the potential side effects of medication, are what most people prefer.
In the sections below, I will discuss some of the most common, and useful, non-medication approaches for solving your insomnia. We can start with a summary (below) and then work through each part in more detail.
TIP #1: ESTABLISH A HEALTHY SLEEP ROUTINE
Make sure you have a good “pre-sleep” routine. This is similar to the “pre-game” routine that some athletes use. With regard to getting some ZZZZs, however, a pre-sleep routine is referred to simply as having good “sleep hygiene.”
The benefit of having a standard routine that you go through each night before bedtime is that you begin to train yourself to sleep. Routines build habits, so the idea is to have a routine that leads to the habit of falling asleep. This usually includes:
· Going to bed at the same time each night
· Turning off the television and internet an hour before sleep
· Taking a shower or bath
· Avoiding arguments or working on things that are stressful
· No caffeine
· Performing some light stretches or meditation
· Taking a few quiet moments to consider what went well in the day
· Writing one or two things down for which you are grateful
· Listening to calming music
· Saying one’s prayers
Do you see a pattern in the above suggestions? It includes avoiding stimulation (e.g., television, internet, caffeine, arguments, etc.), and focusing on what is calming and relaxing (e.g., what went well in the day, taking a shower, calming music, prayer, etc.).
When you do go to bed make the room as quiet as possible, and as dark as possible. Even the light of a digital clock has been shown to disturb the sleep of many people. Once your head is on the pillow take a deep breath and slowly exhale.
Repeat this several times while imagining a peaceful scene (the end of the day is NOT the time to review the day, or solve problems that await you in the morning).
It takes some practice to develop this sort of routine but with a little time and effort it works very well for many people.
TIP #2: Consider using supplements.
There are many supplements that may help you get a better night’s sleep. If you would like to explore a variety of these potential aids for sleep, you can look at reviews by Consumer Labs, and another review by Psychology Today.
For our purposes, however, I will just mention one of the most popular supplements, melatonin (available over the counter at pharmacies and health food stores).
Melatonin is a naturally occurring hormone that your body uses to regulate cycles of sleep and wakefulness. In the evening, your brain’s production of melatonin rises. This helps in preparing you to go to sleep.
Common sense suggests that if you can increase your melatonin production in the evening you will be better prepared to sleep. But this is difficult to do. It’s not as though you can tell you brain “Please ramp up the melatonin production now because I would like to be snoozing in an hour.”
So, how can you increase the melatonin in your system on demand? Supplements.
The melatonin that you take as a supplement is a synthetic form of the hormone your body produces. Early research on melatonin and sleep was very promising, but later research has been more mixed. Put somewhat differently, “Your mileage may vary.”
I’ve known people for whom melatonin is a huge help, and others for whom it appears to have little impact.
The good news is that melatonin appears to be safe, and it is not expensive. So if you want to try it, the current research suggests there is little to lose (OK, maybe five dollars).
Let me be clear, I'm not a physician and I'm not recommending that you use melatonin. Do a little research, consult your doctor, and decide if this is something you would like to try. (If you are interested in prescription drugs used to treat insomnia the Harvard Medical School News Letter is a good start).
TIP #3: Get out of bed!
Well that’s an odd way to fall asleep you say to yourself. Yes, but an odd way that works for most people. Here are the details of how to make it work.
If you get into bed, and after twenty minutes are still awake, then it’s time to get up and leave the room. Why? Because you want your brain to associate bed with sleep, not with being awake (again, we are looking to develop habits for your brain).
Once you are out of bed, go to another room and find a book. The most boring book you can find. If you don’t have boring books borrow one from your neighbor, or better yet buy one. Sit down in a comfortable chair and begin to read. Soon you’ll feel sleepy.
Keep reading (by the way, if for some reason you become interested in the boring book put it down and grab a book that is twice as boring).
Within a short while you will become even sleepier. At that point you head back to bed, repeat the deep breathing routine once more, think of a relaxing scene and fall asleep.
But what, you ask, should I do if I still cannot fall asleep? Cursing the fates that have resulted in your being awake would be a good start. Not too loudly though – there are probably others in the home who are sleeping.
I should add this if you are married it would be a very bad idea to wake your soulmate. There is a great deal in life that you want to share with your spouse, but insomnia is not one of those things.
OK, so what to do this second time when repeating the ‘get out of bed’ routine? Sadly, you do exactly what you did the first time. Find a comfy chair and a boring book. Read until you are sleepy. How sleepy? To the point where you feel that you might doze off any minute.
How many times should you repeat this routine in a given night? As many times as it takes to get to sleep.
Yes, it can be very tough the first night or two, but eventually you will sleep (see the CAUTION below about not napping later in the day).
Once you have repeated this routine to the point that you are finally asleep, a milestone will have been reached. That is you will have successfully taken a major step toward teaching your brain to shut down when your head hits the pillow.
If that takes a few nights of getting out of bed, well, that's not too bad compared to spending months, or years, wrestling with insomnia.
The bottom line is this: most people who follow the advice I’ve given will find that they can eventually fall asleep at their normal bedtime. Sometimes it takes several tries before success is reached, but don’t give up, it will happen.
One caution. Don’t take naps while you are trying to get your sleep back to normal. Only after your sleep has returned to a healthy pattern should you go back to taking a nap. Even then, try not to nap late in the afternoon.
Also, even if you have had a sleepless night hopping in and out of bed like a jazzercise instructor on steroids, don't change your bedtime to a later hour in the evening. You are likely to find that this results in the same problem occurring, but just later in the night.
Remember, we are looking to establish habits and routines! That's what trains the brain.
There are other ways to tame your sleep, but for most people the three approaches just described will do wonders.
TIP #4: DO SEVERAL, OR ALL, OF THE FOLLOWING
Don’t exercise in the two to three hours before sleeping
No caffeine in the evening. When to cut out caffeine will vary from person to person. You will need to experiment. For some it means no caffeine after 4:00 PM. For others the cutoff time might be two hours before bedtime.
Reduce fluid intake several hours prior to bedtime – drinking too much of anything just prior to bedtime will lead to less sound sleep even if it does not lead you to get up in the middle of the night.
A snack prior to bedtime is fine, but not a heavy meal. Let your body focus on sleep rather than digestion.
Make sure you have had 20 minutes or more of exposure to sunlight in the day: sunlight is important for regulating your sleep cycle (your brain knows when you’ve skimped on getting some rays)
Darken the room that you are sleeping in – close the blinds, close the door, and turn off all the lights. Even the light from a digital clock will cause sleep disturbances in some people.
Experiment with room temperature: the ideal temperature for sleep varies with the individual (Artic cold for me, thanks), and this one change can make a huge difference.
Stop being cheap. You know who you are. Buy a good pillow, and while you are at it make sure you have sheets that are comfortable (you don’t need to buy the most expensive linens, but if you crawl into bed and it feels like you are a monk wearing an itchy hair shirt, it’s time to upgrade your linens). I’m sure I don’t have to talk about the need for a good mattress.
Do not overdo alcohol – a glass of wine/beer is fine, but more than that will disrupt REM sleep, which is the most important stage of sleep in allowing you to feel fresh and ready for the next day.
No naps after 3:00 PM
Take a warm shower or bath before bed
Relax prior to going to bed. More specifically, let your brain relax. That means it is not a good idea to go to bed right after watching a movie, or working on the computer. Yes, some of you can manage that transition with ease. But if you are struggling to get a good night’s rest, try something different. Create a routine where all electronics are off, the house is quiet, and you have a chance to listen to relaxing music, read a book, or engage in conversation.
WHEN TO SEE YOUR DOCTOR
You may have tried several of the ideas discussed above and still cannot get the sleep you need. Perhaps you are wondering if it is time to make an appointment to discuss your sleep problem with your doctor. WebMD has the following guidelines to consider when making this choice.
* Fall asleep while driving?
Struggle to stay awake when inactive, such as when watching television or reading?
Have difficulty paying attention or concentrating at work, school, or home?
Have performance problems at work or school?
Often get told by others that you look tired?
Have difficulty with your memory?
Have slowed responses?
Have difficulty controlling your emotions?
Feel the need to take naps almost every day?
Because the list above is not a quiz that provides a score, you will need to use your judgment in considering whether the number of symptoms that apply to you reach the threshold for making a doctor’s appointment.
COGNITIVE BEHAVIORAL THERAPY
It is worth mentioning that when all else fails, research shows that Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is the most effective way to provide long lasting relief from insomnia. I won’t go into how insomnia is treated with CBT (perhaps in another post), but for those of you who continue to struggle with consistently getting a good night’s rest, CBT offers another way to tackle this problem.
BOOKS YOU MIGHT ENJOY
If you diligently apply yourself to using the strategies discussed above, there is a good chance your sleep problems will diminish, and possibly be resolved altogether. But in case you want dig a little deeper into this subject, there are a couple of books you will find of interest: Why We Sleep (Matthew Walker), and The Sleep Book: How To Sleep Well Every Night (Guy Meadows).
Life is too short to be saddled with insomnia. It robs you of energy, diminishes your focus, creates irritation, lowers performance, and increases the possibility of developing a serious health issue. If you are like millions of others who have a difficult time getting a good night’s sleep, try some of the strategies we’ve just looked at, and see if that doesn’t get you started toward a better night’s sleep.
The principles that I want to write about today, those guidelines for having a good argument, apply to nearly all types of relationships.
How To Tell If You Have Serious Depression
And What You Can Do About It
Depression is a term that most people are familiar with because it is frequently used to describe one's mood. You no doubt have often heard someone who is facing a challenging time in life say “I guess right now I'm just feeling a little depressed about all of this” or something to that effect. Or, you may have heard others comment “Oh, now that's really depressing.”
What these comments point to are not the sort of depression we will be considering. What those statements (and similar statements) refer to are momentary periods of time when a person is rather sad, disappointed, or melancholy.
When therapists refer to someone as depressed they have something much more severe and more specific in mind. Indeed, therapists try to be very specific regarding depression and therefore divide this concept into various subtypes such as major depressive disorder, dysthymia, cyclothymia, etc.
I also want you to keep in mind that depressive symptoms may occur in conjunction with other disorders. For example, one may have a psychotic disorder with depressive features, an Adjustment Disorder with depressive features, and so forth. People who suffer with anxiety will also often have symptoms of depression. This is due to the stress and sense of isolation that frequently accompanies severe anxiety.
You can see that depressive symptoms are depressingly common across many disorders.
Depression shows up in many different ways, and some of these are not easily identifiable, while others are more obvious. For some folk depression comes on suddenly (over a matter of days or a few weeks). For others it develops more slowly over the course of several months (this slowly developing depression may make it more difficult for the person who is experiencing it to realize that he, or she, is depressed).
The main feature of depression, not surprisingly, is a depressed mood. Not just a little sad or blue, but truly depressed. The world begins to appear rather grim, the day to day present moments lack joy, and the future holds less appeal than it once did. In addition, those who have severe depression typically experience “anhedonia”, which is a fancy way of saying that there is a lack of interest in events/people/hobbies that, previous to the current time, had given the child, teen or adult a good deal of enjoyment.
Related to this symptom is another, a tendency to become more socially withdrawn. The problem here is that when someone withdraws from family and friends they end up feeling more isolated and uncared for – leading to greater depression.
Quite frequently depressed individuals have difficulty concentrating, sometimes to the point that their school or job performance is compromised.
A lack of self-esteem is frequently seen in those who are depressed, and this is most often thought to be a result of all the other symptoms that haunt the depressed individual.
There is another class of symptoms that need to be looked at and these are called vegetative (related to functions essential for life). The list is rather short.
1. Lack of energy being common among those suffering from a severe depression. This will most often be seen in general fatigue.
2. Changes in appetite are common (both increased appetite as well as a lack of appetite... it varies from individual to individual). These changes are generally accompanied by changes in weight.
3. Disturbed sleep is frequently seen and may appear as insomnia, restless sleep, or a need for longer periods of sleep.
4. A diminished sex drive is also common.
5. Frequent crying is not uncommon (with or without a reason).
6. Thoughts of suicide or self-harm sometimes arise (but not all people with a severe depression experience these thoughts).
COURSE OF DEPRESSION
Depression is one of the most prevalent mental disorders found among adults. About 6% of the population struggles with depressive symptoms. It is somewhat more common with women (8%) than with men (5%). Depression also is a major problem impacting children and teens.
Those who suffer from depression are also likely to suffer from anxiety (approximately two thirds of those who are depressed also have anxiety).
People who have experienced childhood trauma are more likely than others to have depression and anxiety. Moreover, when depression occurs with anxiety it is likely to last longer than when it occurs without anxiety.
Although the course of depression varies according to the individual, research suggests that 70% of depressed adults recover within a year of the onset of symptoms. Of those who are still depressed at the end of the first year, many (approximately 12%) will remain depressed for up to another five years.
Early intervention is crucial, although it should also be stressed that it is never too late to make significant changes that result in the resolution of depression.
Depression may develop gradually or quickly. At times it can be traced to specific events in an individual's life such as the loss of a loved one, or a series of significant misfortunes (e.g., divorce followed by the loss of a job followed by a major move that puts trusted family and friends on the other side of the world). Conversely, it may develop gradually, with no specific event being easily identifiable, but instead a steady decline in the individual's mood and reduction in healthy ways of thinking and behaving which in turn accelerate the depressive decline.
KEY SYMPTOM CHECKLIST FOR DEPRESSION
Anhedonia (lack of interest in events/people/hobbies)
Lack of energy
Changes in appetite
HOW TO BEAT DEPRESSION: THE ROAD BACK TO A HAPPIER, FULLER LIFE
There is good news. Depression can be resolved. Although when you are depressed it may feel hopeless, the truth is that most people do not stay depressed. That by itself tells us that logically, there is every reason to expect that depression will be beaten, and a happier life regained.
There are many ways to fight back against depression. Some of these strategies are specific to what has caused the depression. Other strategies are not related to the exact reasons the depression took hold, but they are nevertheless effective. I’ll briefly mention several of the general strategies.
Take the Positive Psychology Approach
Positive Psychology is a field that focuses on maximizing psychological health and happiness through positive thinking and behavior. Sound simplistic? It is. Also, effective.
Gratitude Using this approach you could try focusing on gratitude (shameless plug alert, you can get a pdf guide on research-based gratitude exercises by signing up for my newsletter at forresttalley.com).
If you take this approach you might try keeping a daily gratitude journal, or writing a single one-line gratitude note to someone each day.
Help Others Research, and common sense, also show that focusing your energies on helping others who are in need helps to lift depression. We’re not talking the “rushing into a burning building” type of help. Even giving someone a ride to the doctor’s office, or mowing the neighbor’s yard, will boost one’s mood.
Exercise Brief moderate daily exercise is a tried and true mood booster as well. No need to go wild, just 15 to 20 minutes a day of walking is likely to make a difference in depression when done regularly over time.
Behave The Way You Want To Feel Act as though you were happy. Actions have powerful consequences. Actions send signals to the brain that in turn responds by releasing certain neurotransmitters that change our mood.
For example, research has found that when you have people smile, even when they do not know that you are intentionally having them smile, their mood improves. In one study researchers compared people who held a pencil in their mouth in a way that imitated a smile to those who also were instructed to hold a pencil in their mouth, but in a way that inhibited smiling.
All subjects then performed an identical task and given a questionnaire to report on their mood (among other things). The unwitting smilers were much happier than non-smilers.
There are numerous other studies showing the powerful link between behavior and mood/attitude (interesting fact, did you know that even simple changes in your posture can influence your confidence?).
The bottom line is, when depressed it is helpful to act happy. You don’t need to be the life of the party or pretend that things have never been better. But you will do yourself a favor by smiling, pulling your shoulders back, greeting others warmly, and engaging with family and friends.
When we give in to feelings of depression, looking glum and keeping away from others, we make things worse. I would not want to do that and I’m certain you would not want to either.
Before moving on, however, I want to be clear. It’s fine, in fact it’s a good idea when you are depressed to confide these feelings to your inner circle of friends/family. Everyone needs support, make sure you find it among those with whom you are closest. But having done so, dust yourself off, and continue on with the business of life. By taking this approach you will be training your brain to resist depression.
Three Good Things The last thing I’ll mention regarding positive psychology is that it can be helpful to end each day by writing down “Three Good Things” that happened, what part you had in making them happen, and how you can use those insights to make the next day a little better. Do this for two weeks and see if your mood has not improved.
There is a mountain of research showing that psychotherapy is an effective approach for dealing with depression. The real question is what type of psychotherapy is most effective? This has been debated for years and continues to be debated.
The data suggest that there is no one approach that is clearly the winner. What matters most is that the therapist and client are a good fit (the client likes the therapist, believes he/she is competent, understanding, respectful, trustworthy, and has a reasonable plan for dealing with the depression).
What this means for someone who is depressed and seeking psychotherapy is that finding the right therapist is more important than finding the right type of therapy (see blogs dated July 17th and 24th 2018).
But let’s be clear, the right therapist is at least somewhat related to the sort of therapy he or she practices. If you hate the idea of hypnosis, then you will not feel as though a hypnotherapist is a good fit for you, no matter how competent, understanding and trustworthy that person may be.
In all likelihood a therapist will primarily practice one of the following three types of therapy. Cognitive Behavior Therapy, Interpersonal/Psychodynamic Therapy, or Eclectic Therapy.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) focuses on finding the links between one’s thoughts, behaviors and emotions. After discovering these links the therapist makes recommendations on how a client can change his or her thoughts and behaviors in order to bring about a change in emotions (in this case, depression).
An interpersonal/psychodynamic therapist will help a client discover these same links, but also tries to put that information within the context of the client’s history. The past is considered an important force in molding the client’s current patterns of thoughts/behavior/feelings.
By uncovering how it has impacted a client (that is, making clear the connection of the present with the impact of the past), the client is better able to free him/herself from its powerful influence. Being aware of these connections provides freedom to choose differently, behave more adaptively, and see present circumstances without the distortions caused by painful events in one’s history.
The eclectic therapist uses a combination of therapies (such as CBT and IP). Many therapists, perhaps most, consider themselves to be eclectic.
People often have strong views about the use of psychiatric medications. Some are huge supporters whereas others see the use of medication to treat depression as a high-risk gamble, or worse, a sign of weakness.
The bottom line is that medication has a long record of being effective in reducing depression in most people. When used appropriately, antidepressants are extraordinarily safe, although some side effects are possible.
Moreover, they are often used in combination with psychotherapy – for good reason (Read my blog of August 11, 2018 to learn more about when to use medication). These two approaches combined are generally more effective in bringing relief than either approach in isolation. Medication brings about faster change, and psychotherapy brings about more lasting change.
The impact of depression is felt in many families. The good news is there is much that can be done to identify and treat it effectively. Depression plays tricks with your mind. It makes you believe that life will never get better. That the happiness you once knew has been irretrievably lost. But there is hope, and every reason to expect that one or more of the approaches outlined above will be able to help you turn thing around. Regain the joy and vitality that depression has stolen.
So, if you, or someone you love, has several of the symptoms listed at the start of this blog, consider talking to your physician or a counselor to learn whether it might be time to get some help. There is nothing to lose by taking that first step.
WHAT WE CAN LEARN FROM CASINOS THAT WILL MAKE PARENTING 100% EASIER
I remember the first time I went to a casino. The place was filled with a sense of excitement: bright lights, crowds bustling around, cocktail waitresses happily providing complimentary drinks, and the unspoken promise of easy money. There were well dressed men and women playing card games and having piles of chips that were worth my entire month’s salary. Over at the craps table I heard someone yell out “Little Joe” which I thought was an affectionate name for the one of the dealers (turns out to mean the “four” on dice). As I stood at the table the stickman (the fellow in the nappy vest holding a stick with which he moves the dice around the table) shouted out "eleven in a shoe store" (a two on the dice), "Big Red, catch'em in the corner" (a six on the dice), "Benny Blue, you're all through" (seven on the dice), and much more. This was mesmerizing, and only with difficulty did I pull away from the game to explore more of the casino.
Before long I had wandered over to what appeared to be a small city of slot machines. Row upon row of these dream makers sat in neat rows. Shiny, adorned with bright lights that flashed when a jackpot was struck. More attractive yet was occasional sound of coins clattering into metal trays.
But what was especially striking was the crowd in this part of the casino. At first I thought the AARP was holding a mini convention. This clearly was the place to be for the silver and blue haired crowd. These gamblers were of an age, on average, that suggested an intimate knowledge of antiquity (I was in my twenties, so anyone over 60 qualified… yes, these many years later I find that observation less amusing). I was impressed. It was two in the morning and these legions of the old guard were grimly stuffing quarters into slot machines with the determination of a brick layer.
Every once in a while the lights above one of the machines would blink brightly and a bell would briefly ring. Someone had won a jackpot! It didn’t happen often, just often enough to keep those good people awake and plugging more quarters into the slot machines.
You’re probably wondering how on earth this is related to parenting? Honestly, it has everything to do with parenting. In fact, it relates to one of the three or four main things that you need to get right in parenting if you want to maintain your sanity while raising children (I know, a tall order).
Let me explain – this won’t take long, but it is important. And (stay with me), because we need to talk about pigeons for a minute in order to get to its application to having happier children and less stressful parenting. Won’t take long.
PECKING PIGEONS AND A MAN CALLED SKINNER
In the middle of the last century a psychologist by the name of Burrhus Frederic Skinner was very keen to study the behavior of pigeons. He reasoned it was much easier to study these animals than it was to study people. What’s more, Skinner also believed that the basic principles of behavior operated the same across all species (he was partially correct, but the emphasis is on partially… a story for another time).
Skinner hypothesized something about animal behavior that everyone knows already (that’s what psychologist do). The difference is he decided to carefully and systematically study the implications of his hypothesis. Skinner guessed that if you rewarded a pigeon for some random behavior, say pecking on a lever, that before long the behavior would start to happen more often.
Sure enough, he found that when pigeons received a small portion of food each time they pecked on a lever, they began to make lever pecking their primary business. Peck on the lever, be rewarded with a kernel of corn. Pretty straightforward. He called this a continuous reinforcement schedule.
But then Skinner got to thinking. What would happen if you rewarded the pigeons at first, and then once they learned to be expert lever peckers you stopped rewarding them? He ran a few experiments and it turned out that the pigeons, after no longer receiving a food reward for pecking, stopped after a short while. They gave up on lever pecking as a way to get food.
The take away? Even pigeons have enough smarts to know when the good times are over.
What would happen, however, if you did not stop rewarding the lever pecking altogether but just cut down on how frequently the rewards came? And to make things more interesting, Skinner thought to himself, what if you somewhat randomly rewarded the lever pecking. Maybe providing a little corn every 5 to 10 pecks. This is what Skinner called a “variable ratio reinforcement schedule.”
Under these conditions the pigeons began to peck the lever like never before. They became obsessed with getting their beak on the lever in order to get more food.
It was as though the pigeon was pecking away thinking “What, four pecks and no food? Maybe another four pecks will do the trick, I never can tell for sure. Curse that mad cap scientist Dr. Skinner!”
The birds increased the frequency of their pecking because it was impossible to tell exactly when there would be a payoff. They had learned, however, that with persistence a payoff would surely occur.
Now this got Skinner to thinking even more. What would happen when you stopped rewarding pigeons under these conditions? That is, what would the birds do who had been trained on a variable reinforcement schedule once they stopped getting any rewards at all for their lever pecking behavior?
It turned out that they continued to peck on the lever for a much longer period of time when compared to birds that had been trained on a continuous reinforcement schedule. Much longer. Not even a contest.
This makes sense, right? Because the rewards no longer came in a predictable manner. The pigeons on the variable reinforcement schedule had been trained to persist in the face of adversity. They had learned to expect that if they just kept doing the same thing over and over, food would eventually fall from the heavens into their cage.
TAKE AWAY MESSAGE SO FAR…. Schedules of variable reinforcement create exceptionally strong responses that are not easily changed. In fact, there is an interesting twist that comes when you stop rewarding behavior under these variable reward schedules. The frequency of the behavior usually increases, and becomes more intense, once you stop the rewards. This is true not just with pigeons, but with people as well.
If the reward continues to be withheld, the behavior will almost always eventually stop. But when compared to continuous reinforcement, it takes a much longer time.
BACK TO CASINOS AND SLOT MACHINES
Let’s look again at the people playing slot machines at two in the morning. What schedule of reinforcement do slot machines follow? Yes, that’s right, a variable schedule of reinforcement. They don’t pay off every time, nor on a regular schedule, but rather every so often in an unpredictable way. (In fact, I cannot think of any form of gambling that does not follow this schedule, although some do so more than others).
There is a reason why casinos make a lot of money. They know how people respond to reinforcement schedules. The person at a slot machine is going to keep playing because he, or she, has already had a payout (or seen others get a payout) and feels certain another is right around the corner. They know for a fact that slot machines are unpredictable, so even though they have lost some money already, why shouldn’t the next quarter provide a big payout? The money they have already put in is just an investment in a jackpot that is likely to occur very soon.
Compare that same person an hour later. Imagine that Eunice and Sherie have called it a night. They leave the slot machines and take the elevator up to their room. But before getting there they stop to get a soda from a vending machine. Eunice needs quarters (she spent them all on the slots downstairs), so she puts a five-dollar bill in the change machine that sits next to the soda dispenser.
The machine makes a whirling sound, sucks in her five-dollar bill, and…. nothing. No coins come tumbling down into the little change tray. No satisfying clank of quarters piling up. The only thing Eunice hears is the hum of the ice machine.
Now let’s freeze the action at this point and step back for a moment. What do you imagine Eunice will do at this point? Will she feed another Lincoln into this bad boy hoping for a big payday? Will she whisper to her friend Sherie “I’m feeling lucky? This next bill is going to pay out big time!”
Pretty unlikely. Eunice knows what to expect from a change machine. You nearly always get out what you put in – and if that does not happen then there is no need to keep trying. Game over. Eunice will not treat the change machine the way she treated the slot machine because she knows what to expect. Change machines operate on a continuous schedule of reinforcement. Put a bill in, get quarters out.
PARENTING AND MINIMIZING STRUGGLES WITH CHILDREN
I’m sure we can all see how this applies to parenting. But stay with me while I briefly flesh out the application of this concept.
One of the things I frequently see when working with parents (and something I have done as well) is to inconsistently apply household rules. When we, as parents, are inconsistent, we are teaching are children to respond to a variable schedule of reinforcement. Normally a bad idea.
An example comes to mind. Three-year-old Jennifer likes to whine when she cannot get her way. Mom and dad both work, so they don’t have a lot of time on work days to spend with their daughter (they both feel guilty about that as well). When Jennifer whines about needing to follow her parent’s directions, their initial response is to insist that she do as they have instructed.
But Jennifer is young, and she responds by whining some more. A struggle ensues. Sometimes mom and dad prevail, and Jennifer does as she was told. Sometimes they give in (again, they are tired and feel guilty about having little time with their daughter, so why spoil the few moments they do have with her). When they give in to the whining Jennifer gets to avoid doing that which she objected to (that is a reward in itself).
They have set up a variable reinforcement schedule. They have become human slot machines. Jennifer’s whining is similar to the pigeon pecking a lever. The reinforcer (like the food for a pigeon) is their daughter getting to have her way. She may not get her way most of the time, but she wins often enough to know that whining leads to rewards (getting her way) some of the time.
Over time mom and dad will notice that their little girl has become a handful. That she is extremely defiant. My way or the highway type of defiant. So, the parents decide enough is enough, from now on whatever they say she simply has to obey (they will act like the change machine – predictable, and consistent).
They start this new approach and Jennifer’s whining increases! (Remember, we expect this when breaking habits formed with variable reinforcement). They doggedly persist for two or three days but things just get worse (something else we expect when coming off a variable reinforcement schedule).
But they don’t persist long enough. Their daughter’s increased whining convinces them that they are doing something wrong. Doubt and even greater stress begin to form. They wonder if their little girl is just different. That being consistent may work for others, but Jennifer is different, and this approach just will not work for her. Eventually mom and dad give up.
Now their daughter’s variable reinforcement schedule is even more deeply rooted than before.
There is no ‘one size fits all’ solution, but there is a general approach that works for most parents.
First, count on it taking longer than you expect to break habits that have been formed through variable reinforcement schedules. For some children it may take a week, for others a month or more before progress is seen.
Second, don’t let your child’s reaction cause you to get sucked into arguments, long explanations, or angry outbursts. Calmly state what you expect, repeat it once or twice if needed, and otherwise do your best to ignore the child’s tantrum. (Some tantrums cannot, and should not, be ignored but that is another story for another time).
Third, consider setting up a reward for appropriate behavior. For example, if your child normally responds by having a tantrum when you ask him, or her, to take a bath, try providing a small reward when they comply. You may want to create a reward chart and when your son or daughter obeys a bedtime direction, a start is placed on the chart (after the age of 6 or 7 years children don’t care about receiving stars…. So don’t try this with older children, they will think you’ve lost your mind). Keeping a box of stickers and letting your child pick a sticker if he or she follows your directions is another approach that is often helpful. Obviously children of different ages require different types of incentives. None of which need to be elaborate, just as long as they are meaningful to your child.
The big payoff for consistency is not just less stress for you and your child. There is evidence that consistency also leads to children being less likely to become depressed or anxious.
Variable schedules of reinforcement powerfully influence behavior. Although we’ve not covered it in the above discussion, these schedules can be used to promote healthy behavior as well (think of how you have learned to persist in pursuing a goal despite setbacks, knowing that victory is not always reached on the first, second or third attempt).
As parents we can easily slip into creating a variable reinforcement schedule that ends up causing all kinds of headaches for ourselves, and our children. In fact, I think every parent does this from time to time… don’t beat yourself up if you realize you’ve fallen into that trap.
These schedules, and the behaviors that go with them can be changed. They are not written in stone. If we think carefully about how we would like our children to respond, provide some rewards for their compliance, and show persistence in our expectations, success nearly always follows.
Forgiveness And A Happy Full Life
“Forgiveness is the fragrance the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.” Mark Twain
From an early age, most of us were taught that it is a good and noble thing to forgive others. That makes sense. You don’t find too many parents that encourage their children to hold a grudge, or nurture resentment. Whether one is religious or secular, common sense suggests that the ability to forgive others is a healthy trait. It is difficult to go through life without needing forgiveness – we all make mistakes. It is equally difficult to go through life withholding forgiveness – it acts as a strong chord that binds close relationships when torn by the forces of human frailty.
Before going further, however, we need to answer the obvious question of “What Does It Mean To Forgive?”
What Is Forgiveness?
A practical definition (not theological) is that forgiveness is the act of erasing the personal debt incurred by a wrong. Put somewhat differently, we give up the right to ‘get even.’ The wrong that was done to us is not used as a cudgel against the wrong doer.
Let’s be clear. Forgiveness is not excusing someone’s behavior.
Nor is it a reason to be a doormat and accept further wrongs.
Neither does the act of forgiving someone mean that the wrong doer is not held accountable (Teen: “But Dad, you said you forgave me for crushing the fender on the car.” Parent “I do forgive you, but I also still hold you responsible for your actions, which means your summer job will help you pay for car repairs.”).
Lastly, forgiveness does not mean that the one who forgives should adopt a naive view of the person who is being forgiven.
If a new acquaintance, for example, is invited to have dinner at your home and you later find that he has stolen your wallet, the family silverware collection, and the cat (well, you might thank him for taking the cat), then you would be unwise to send out another invite. It would be very wise, however, to try your best to forgive him.
Does that mean you would not call the police? Of course you would call the police. Press charges? I hope so. Avoid spending time with sticky fingers in the future? Terrific idea.
But holding a grudge, letting resentment take root that would be a bad idea. If that were to occur, then the man who betrayed your trust would continue to influence your life, for the worse.
If resentment is not rooted out, but allowed to remain, the person who has wronged us has a double victory… both in having committed the wrong, and now having set up residence in our mind, rent-free.
But when we are able to forgive, we win freedom by evicting the harsh feelings that come with resentment, and we evict the control the wrong doer has over our happiness.
Forgiveness takes strength. It goes against our natural inclination to hold onto resentment.
It is also important to remember that forgiveness is often a process. A time consuming process. Sometimes a life-long process.
The effort it takes, the cost it extracts, means extending forgiveness is not for the weak of heart.
It is, however, very much for those who want to have more control over their lives, and live more freely. As one writer put it
"When you release the wrongdoer from the wrong, you cut a malignant tumor out of your inner life. You set a prisoner free, but you discover that the real prisoner was yourself" (Lewis B. Smedes).
What Are The Practical Benefits of Forgiving Others… And the Costs of Not Forgiving?
It turns out that those who are good at forgiving tend to be happier, have healthier relationships, less stress, fewer illnesses and stronger marriages than those who are not so good at extending forgiveness.
Sounds good, yes? If you could buy forgiveness as a supplement I would have Amazon Prime delivering it to my doorstep the first of each month.
But there is the proverbial ‘fly in the ointment.’ As C. S. Lewis wryly noted, "Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive."
Exactly. Forgiveness does not come naturally to most of us. Anger and resentment come naturally. In fact, these reactions seem almost reflexive, and can feel empowering. A welcome antidote to the experience of hurt and betrayal. This is especially true when our pride has been injured (which is often the case when someone does something that we, in turn, need to forgive).
Unfortunately, the feelings of resentment and anger that led us to feel empowered eventually end up consuming our mental energies, and draining joy from our lives. Like a cancer, it absorbs its host.
Unforgiveness is particularly destructive when it occurs in close relationships. When one person has been wronged, and withholds forgiveness, the relationship changes. You see, forgiving someone you love provides him or her freedom from past mistakes. Withholding forgiveness withholds that freedom. The relationship becomes lopsided. The transgressor forever being held under the cloud of his or her past failure.
Relationships marked by unforgiveness become weighed down by the pressure of this unresolved hurt. Although the relationship may still be close, a barrier exists that prevents it from developing even more fully. This is true in marriages, close friendships, sibling relationship, and so forth.
Many people attempt to deal with the difficulty of forgiving others by simply brushing the matter aside. This is especially easy to do when the transgressor has failed to ask for forgiveness. In that case, you or I might say “Why forgive? They won’t even accept that they did something wrong.”
Often when things get to this point both people (whether they be spouses, close friends, etc.) will reason that if the relationship is to be salvaged we simply need to “agree to disagree” and move forward.
The problem is that as we “move forward” we now have an added guest: the ghost of unresolved betrayal, heartache and conflict.
You may be thinking that this is just part of life. It’s the best we can hope for in many situations. Although that may be true at times, I want to encourage you to aim higher, strive to forgive.
The alternative to forgiving, to ‘just move on’, carries a too high a cost. That is what I want to explore next, but to do that I need to talk about memory, beer, and happy relationships (no, this isn’t a recollection of my years in graduate school).
Memory, Beer and Happy Relationships
In the early part of the last century, some of the brightest psychologists in the world could be found in Germany at the Berlin School of Experimental Psychology. Being in Berlin meant that a trip to the beer garden, after a long day of work, was customary. In fact, a certain group of elite social scientists at the Berlin School became regulars at one of the local beer gardens in the city.
One evening this group went out after work to spend some time relaxing and tipping back a few brewskies. Late in the evening one of their members commented about the remarkable memory their waiter had demonstrated (let’s call him Hans). He had served them on many occasions: sometimes they had come as a large group of twenty, at other times a smaller group half that size. No matter how large the party, Hans had always taken their orders without using a notepad, and returned later with the exact item each person had ordered. He then correctly placed each order with each diner. Hans never missed. Never. Zilch. Flawless.
Someone in the group asked Hans to reveal his secret for remembering orders. “You are remarkable! Tell us, how do you remember all of our orders Hans? You even seem to recall the smallest details, like my preference for having Königsberger Klopse without beets.”
Hans paused for a moment, closed his eyes, and then with a wry smile replied, “Ich habe keine Ahnung!”, or “Beats me!”
The psychologists were baffled. How could Hans not know? Was he holding back on them? There must be a system (and they wanted to know what it was because, after all, one of their main areas of research was on memory).
One of psychologist at the table, a 23-year-old Russian woman named Bluma Zeigarnik, thought she might have a clue. Not the full answer to how Hans demonstrated gold medalist memory skills, but at least part of the answer.
To test her idea she waited until the next time the group visited the beer garden. She waited for Hans to bring their food, and as usual he took their order without writing anything down. A short time later the food arrived and Hans correctly placed each meal with the person who had requested that particular dish.
Once Hans turned away to wait on another table Bluma asked all of her colleagues to quickly cover their plates with a napkin. She then called for Hans and asked him to return. “Hans, would you please remind me what the food orders were that you just put on our table?” (You can see why psychologist don’t get many dinner invitations…. We’re a lively group to take into public, full of surprises that make everyone cringe).
The young waiter stood quietly, staring intently at the napkin-covered plates. He scratched his head (no doubt thinking “Will the answer I give effect my tip?) and eventually replied “Ich habe keine Ahnung!” – which we already know means “Beats me!”
“Thank you Hans. That will be all” Bluma replied (slipping Hans her phone number with the hope that they might meet for coffee the next day).
Her suspicions had been supported. She had not expected Hans to be able to remember the orders once they were delivered to the table. Bluma felt certain that Hans was only able to recall that information when it was still part of his ‘unfinished business.’
Hans, she thought, had unconsciously placed priority on recalling the details of the order because it was part of a sequence of events that needed to be completed. As such the information remained, for a time, readily available (rather like the books sitting on my desk that I refer to while writing a paper).
Once the information became “finished business”, it was unconsciously moved to less accessible areas of the brain where recall was no longer readily available (sort of like taking the books off my desk once the paper is written, and then moving them to a storage unit down the street… I can get to them, but it won’t happen anytime soon).
Put a little differently, there was a processing/action/conclusion loop. Hans took the order (mentally processed the information). Took action (gave the meal orders to the cook). Then concluded the processing/action with delivering the food to the table.
Bluma had guessed that the mind naturally retains information in easily accessible memory when such loops remain open. Once the loop is completed, the information recedes so that new data can be processed.
It was a significant finding, and years of research on this tendency followed. It has become known as the Zeigarnik Effect.
The entire sequence of processing informationàacting on informationàconclusion we will call the Zeigarnik Loop.
Now you are probably asking, “What on earth does this have to do with forgiveness, let alone relationships? “
Let me explain, and add something about why developing the ability to forgive is important for building a happy life.
When someone wrongs us it is quite natural to become angry, and in some circumstances we might ‘hold a grudge’ against that person. The first two steps of the processing/action/conclusion loop have taken place. We became aware that we had been wronged in some way (the processing step). We then confronted the person (action step). But if the wrong doer makes excuses and fails to take responsibility, there is no conclusion step. Alternatively, if they do accept responsibility and apologize, but we fail to forgive, then again there is no conclusion step.
The injury to the relationship remains very much alive in our mind. Put differently, a book of wrongs is left on the desk, easily referred to in the future, rather than being put away in storage.
Perhaps an example would help. Imagine it is a young couple’s wedding day. The bride has spent many months preparing: selecting flowers, choosing dresses for the bridesmaids, deciding on what food to serve at the reception, sending out invitations, and so forth. The groom’s only job has been to make sure that he and the groomsmen appear on time and are wearing tuxedos.
A little problem arises the morning of the wedding: the groom has not tried on his tuxedo, and when he takes it out of the clothing bag he realizes that the tuxedo shop gave him the wrong tuxedo. He ordered black, the one he received is periwinkle blue.
Not wanting to upset his bride he keeps this little mix up to himself. But when his groomsmen see him in his periwinkle tuxedo (looking very much like a Las Vegas piano player) they suggest that it really would have been better to forewarn his betrothed. Too late. She only finds out about the mix up when being walked down the aisle by her father who, seeing the groom standing at the altar, sadly shakes his head, having his worst fears confirmed about his future son in law.
None of us would expect the bride to be pleased with this outcome. She has a right to be upset. But if she cannot eventually forgive her husband, this resentment will remain as something that continues to nag at her. It will be a book of wrongs left on her mental desk. A book that will have more journal entries added as the years go by… and be easily reviewed with every mistake her husband makes in the future.
As these other inevitable sources of conflict arise it will be easy for her to unconsciously frame them in terms of past mistakes. “Oh, once again you are being too lazy to care about what is important to me. Just like that stupid periwinkle blue tuxedo.”
This quickly becomes a downward spiral leading to deeply rooted negative perceptions.
Holding resentments and grudges prevents us from closing the Zeigarnik Loop. It is difficult for us to find the peace we seek without closing this loop.
As Martin Luther King insightfully wrote "I have decided to stick with love…Hate is too great a burden to bear."
How Heavy A Burden?
Those who do not forgive do not reap the rewards that come with this practice. These rewards were briefly mentioned earlier. For example, people who are good at forgiving generally have happier relationships than those that do not readily forgive others.
Forgiveness is also related to improved physical health.
Reductions in stress, anxiety and depression have also been found to be related to forgiveness.
And in case you think that it is impossible to change your ability to forgive, research also shows that most people can learn how to do so, or at the least become better at forgiving (and reap the benefits mentioned above).
The gains from practicing forgiveness are tremendous (and if you are a person of faith, you already know that one of these rewards, not found in the research literature, is a closer relationship with God). If you are interested in reading about specific steps you can take to become better at forgiving (both others and yourself), you can look at books by Hunt, Worthington, Klien, or Smedes.
You may also enjoy watching a video of Dr. Worthington, a research psychologist who has studied forgiveness, speak about specific steps he has found effective in teaching people to be better at forgiving.
Forgiveness can be thought of as the process of closing the Zeigarnik Loop. Releasing the grip of the past on your life, and moving forward with a lighter load to carry.
It is a triumph of the will, not a forgetting, nor an invitation to be abused, not an excuse for the wrong doer’s behavior, nor a sign of weakness. To the contrary, the exercise of forgiveness is a display of strength that wins freedom, and has the capacity to transform the one who forgives from victim to victor.
AND THREE WAYS TO FIGHT BACK
Anxiety is a part of life. Normally an infrequent and mildly unpleasant part… sort of like that college roommate from years gone by who unexpectedly shows up at your door, then camps out in your living room for a night. Unexpected, uninvited, slightly inconvenient, but tolerable. We can all live with that type of anxiety. It doesn’t have a big impact, it is brief, and we maintain a sense of control.
Sometimes, however, anxiety is more like a bill collector. Persistent, intrusive, ill mannered, and capable of casting a dark shadow over your day to day life.
The troubling thing is, we are not always aware of when anxiety has transformed itself from unexpected guest status, to bill collector status. That is because anxiety can slowly eat into our daily mood and outlook. When this happens, we may hardly notice that our life is slowly becoming trapped by fears (sometimes very ill formed or vague) that lurk in the back of our minds.
Below are three signs to look for if you are concerned that this may be happening to you.
ONE Changes in routine. You begin to change your daily routine due to your anxiety. For example, you may start to sleep in a little later (to avoid starting the day and facing the things that make you anxious). Alternatively, you may become less engaged with friends or family because you are preoccupied with those things that make you anxious. Or, perhaps you start to stay later at work, not because there are a greater number of tasks needing your attention, but because you start to obsess more about the need to do things perfectly.
TWO Changes in your overall sense of happiness. Another sign that anxiety is beginning to take over your life is when your level of happiness begins to drop. This frequently occurs so subtly that it may be months before a person realizes that life is simply not as full as it had been a short while before. Chronic low levels of anxiety slowly drain the joy from life. In fact, chronic anxiety frequently leads to depression.
THREE Changes in coping strategies. When you notice yourself more often needing to rely on certain coping strategies, you should stop and consider whether anxiety has established a beachhead somewhere in your life. Examples of these coping strategies include having two or three glasses of wine each evening rather than the occasional one glass. Or spending an hour ‘surfing the internet’ each evening rather than the usual 15 minutes. Another example, easily mistaken for an increased emphasis on health, is the person who goes from taking a three-mile run each morning to a five or six-mile run (not because he/she is getting ready for a competition, but simply because the three-mile run no longer brings a sense of peace/satisfaction).
WHAT CAN BE DONE?
It would probably not be helpful were I to say, in my grandfather's native tongue (Swedish) “Det är ingen ko på isen.” The literal translation of this idiom is "There is no cow on the ice." (I find that strangely reassuring). In the U.S. we would simply say "Not to worry, everything is fine."
Sometimes such reassurance is sufficient, but when anxiety has started to take root you need more than bromides regarding the absence of bovine on ice. Below are three steps you can take to fight back against anxiety if it frequently intrudes on your life.
FIRST Identify the source of anxiety, and if possible meet it head on. Is anxiety due to a deteriorating relationship? Begin to work on repairing the relationship, and prepare for what life might be like if the it cannot be repaired. Is anxiety due to an overwhelming work schedule? Take a Saturday off to be by yourself and consider ways to reduce your workload, or strategize on how to change jobs if necessary.
SECOND Engage in healthy lifestyle changes that reduce stress. For example, make sure you are getting enough sleep. If you are not exercising begin to do so. Or you might try meditating for 20 minutes a day (simple meditation, no need to cross your legs, chant, or burn incense). Also, think about doing a review of your week and make certain that you are engaging in activities that have provided a sense of stability and happiness in the past (e.g., quality time with family/friends, attending church, engaging in hobbies, etc.).
THREE Learn simple coping strategies. The most common of these is learning to take deep/slow breaths when feeling anxious (and visualizing a peaceful scene while doing so). Reminding yourself of past times when you faced anxious situations and prevailed. When you feel anxiety starting to rise up think about taking a five-minute break from whatever you are doing and step outside (sunlight has a positive impact on mood). Of course, if you are in the middle of a business meeting, performing surgery, flying an aircraft, or something similar, this last suggestion should be put on hold.
Again, anxiety is simply a part of life, but it shouldn't be (and need not be) a frequent part of life. There are many more ways to fight back against anxiety than those listed above. If you would like more tips on how to make anxiety an infrequent guest in your life (and honestly, who wants anxiety as a roommate?), take a look at some of the resources on my "Essential Tools" page.
Hope this helps, and write me at email@example.com if you have any questions.
Social Anxiety In Teens: Answering A Parent's Question
Question: I am a single mother raising a 16-year-old daughter. She has always been a very good kid, never one to act out much, and even as a teen she is well behaved. But what worries me is that she is very shy. This has caused her to avoid making new friends, trying out for sports teams, or really just getting out into the world. When she was younger I didn’t think much about it, but she is just two years away from graduating from high school and I don’t see her being able to move out and live independently if she remains this insecure. Now I’m worried.
It sounds as though your daughter suffers with social anxiety. According to the National Institute of Mental Health nearly 10% of adolescents struggle with this fear.
You are right to be concerned. As you point out, this anxiety has robbed your daughter of some important experiences that would have helped prepare her to confidently launch off into adulthood.
It’s interesting to note that researchers have found that good social skills (which includes mastering social anxiety) when measured in kindergarten predict success in early adulthood.
Not to worry. It’s not too late to help your teen build the confidence and skills she needs to successfully and confidently transition into adulthood. Let me point to some research that back up my optimism (aside from my experience in helping many teens make this shift from anxiety to confidence). In a recent study investigators looked at the difference between socially anxious children (ages 7 to 14 years) that successfully learned the skills needed to conquer anxiety, and compared that group to anxious children who had not learned those coping skills.
This is what is called a longitudinal study. That is, the researchers measured the childrens' progress over the course of many years. What they found when they followed up, years after the study began, (the children were now young adults, between the age of 18 and 32 years) is that the youngsters who learned how to cope with social anxiety were significantly less likely to struggle as adults with substance abuse, phobias, panic attacks and anxiety in general.
Take away lesson? It’s terrific that you are wanting to take steps to help your daughter, and it’s not too late for her to learn new skills that have the power to change her life trajectory.
So, you're wondering how to go about the task of helping your little girl. Glad you asked. Let’s look at several steps you can take.
ONE You can begin by sharing your concerns with her. Be careful to frame your remarks in a way that it does not come across as criticism, just concern. The whole point of this conversation is to get her on board with the hard work that will follow.
Once she accepts the idea that the next two years will be devoted to building her social confidence, you can move on to pick a series of goals. Your daughter needs to help select these goals so she feels some ownership of the process.
Help her pick some goals that focus on social interaction with peers. This might include getting involved in the high school Yearbook Club, trying out for a sport, auditioning for theater, or joining one of the clubs on campus.
Those clubs/sports where she has a friend/acquaintance will be the best targets for this goal. Having a friendly familiar face will be reassuring.
Once she has joined a sports team or club she will find it relatively easy to befriend new teens. After all, they have something in common, and they need to work together as part of the club or team to which they both belong.
Do not forget to celebrate her successes along the way. If, for example, she signs up for the school Yearbook Club, be sure to congratulate her. Let her know that you are proud that she has taken this first step. Then, when she attends her first meeting at the Yearbook Club, you will also want to tell her how terrific she is for pushing aside her fears.
TWO Encourage her to have a ‘sleep over’ with one of her current friends (at your home at first so she is more comfortable). After a couple of successful sleepovers, have her invite that same friend and a newer acquaintance to the home for another sleepover. This will stretch her socially (because she does not know the new girl that well), while providing the support of a well-known friend.
THREE Have her obtain a part time job. Preferably in the service sector. Will she be fearful of taking this step? Yes, but there is nothing like having to interact with the public to quickly develop a sense of confidence in her ability to deal with various personalities.
FOUR If you belong to a church have her join the youth group. This will provide more practice with interacting with peers. Moreover, many youth groups go on overnight camping trips (chaperoned by adults). Getting away from the security of her familiar surroundings and relying on peers for support during that time is a great confidence booster.
FIVE Role model with her various social situations and coach her on how she can respond. Yes, I know, she is a teen and may think this is the dumbest thing in the world. Even so, try your best to engage her. Many children with social anxiety simply have not learned to master the social skills that allow one to comfortably interact with others.
The general idea that I outlined above is for you to gradually increase the amount of time your daughter spends in situations that she has avoided. That way she slowly develops the confidence and skills needed to face the challenges that await her in a few short years as a young adult.
If this seems overwhelming, consider seeking the help of a therapist who has experience working with anxious teens. I think you would also find it helpful to look at the ‘Anxiety’ section of the Essential Tools page on my website. You’ll find links to websites, and books that will be very helpful.
Good luck, and let me know how this turns out.
Depression, Anxiety, Medication & You
Depression and anxiety are two of the most common psychiatric concerns among adults, adolescents and children in the USA. The impact of depression and anxiety can be devastating.
Just looking at depression, research from the World Health Organization shows that it is the fourth leading cause of disability. In younger individuals the impact of depression has far reaching consequences. For example, depressed teens are much more likely to become pregnant than their non-depressed peers. Their peer relations are also negatively impacted, as is their ability to prepare for adulthood.
Not surprisingly, depression frequently has a profound economic impact. Annual household incomes where one spouse is depressed are significantly less than households that are free of depression.
The list of problems associated with depression could fill the pages of a book, but I think the picture is clear, depression is a serious problem.
The case is the same when looking at the impact of anxiety (and severe emotional distress in general).
These statistics paint an alarming picture – having anxiety or depression is not a matter of simply dealing with distressing emotions. Instead it is a matter of dealing with something that can turn your life inside out in a dozen different ways.
When you, or someone you love, has anxiety or depression, some serious decisions need to be made regarding treatment. Living with depression or anxiety for years, or worse, for a lifetime, is a horrible option. The cost is too high.
When faced with anxiety or depression, one needs to decide how to overcome the challenge it presents. Many people turn to psychotherapy as a proven means for bringing about positive change (as an aside, research shows that medication and psychotherapy in general are equally effective, but therapy produces longer lasting results, and medication provides faster results).
At some point during therapy you are likely to discuss with your therapist the idea that medication could be a help. How can you wisely decide whether this is a road worth travelling down?
The Down Side of Antidepressants and Anxiolytics
When the topic comes up in conversations with those that I work with I find it helpful to focus on the risks versus benefits of medication. For most healthy individuals the risk attached to taking an antidepressant or anxiolytic (medication for anxiety) are minimal.
Even so, some people do experience one or more side effects. These may include nausea, blurred vision, drowsiness, diminished libido, dry mouth, upset stomach, insomnia, fatigue, and a several other symptoms. With anxiolytics there may be the risk of developing a dependency on the drug, and eventual abuse needs to be guarded against.
Of course, the specific side effects and probability of developing these symptoms, varies according to the specific medication. As a psychologist I don’t prescribe medication, which means that my clients need to see their personal physician, or a psychiatrist, to obtain medication and have follow up visits to monitor for side effects.
To summarize, the main cost of taking medication for anxiety or depression includes the possibility of developing one or more of the side effects just mentioned; the time/money required to see a physician, and; the need to follow up periodically with medical checkups.
The Benefits of Antidepressants and Anxiolytics
But what of the benefits?
On this side of the ledger there is one major benefit… and it can be a game changer. Medication can quickly allow someone with anxiety or depression to feel better, and in doing so unleash their potential to benefit even more from therapy.
Keep in mind, severe anxiety and depression robs a person of the ability to fully utilize his or her strengths. The depressed or anxious person is operating under the incredible weight of these disorders, and this means that they have a difficult time tapping into skills that would otherwise allow them to make greater progress.
An analogy may be helpful (stay with me, this will make sense in just a moment). Imagine you just bought a new car and are driving it home on a country road, enjoying the terrific deal you made (and trying to ignore how much the car depreciated once you drove it off the lot). A dog runs out in front of you, and with Dale Earnhardt like reflexes you swerve, artfully missing the little canine but sending your brand-new set of wheels off the road and into a ditch.
The dust settles. You slowly exit the car and carefully examine it from fender to fender. With a dramatic flair you fall to your knees in gratitude and shout out "Not a scratch! Not a single ding!” But then, looking around, you realize that you, and your car, are not going anywhere.
It may have all the horsepower and all the other wonderful customized features that first attracted you to it, but you are still in a ditch. That car isn’t going anywhere as long as it is in the ditch.
What do you do?
You call a tow truck, which comes and pulls the car out of the ditch, back onto the road. Now all of those features that could not be made use of while the car was in the ditch are available to you again. You say goodbye to the tow truck, and serenely ride down the road.
Medication can function like that tow truck. When anxiety or depression has put you in a ditch so deep that your abilities and skills are not able to be employed, the right medication can help. It can relieve the symptoms enough to unlock your potential to face challenges, think more clearly, develop creative solutions, to persist toward your goals, and to make the most of therapy.
When you are faced with the decision of whether to take medication to help with symptoms of depression or anxiety, consider the costs and benefits. One of the best reasons to take medication is that it has the potential to “turbo charge” your psychotherapy by unleashing the skills and abilities that anxiety and depression have kept suppressed. If your depression, or anxiety, is so severe that it has blocked you from tapping into your strengths, cut you off from those abilities that would help you to effectively fight back and overcome these problems, then medication should be 'on the table.' Don't let your fears, or pride, keep you from taking medication.
By the way, I’m not a physician, so none of the above should be considered medical advice. It is, however, the sort of practical advice I’ve seen work well for many many people.
Let me know if you have any questions. Would love to hear from you.
Very often the only way to get a quality in reality is to start behaving as if you had it already. That is why children’s games are so important. They are always pretending to be grown-ups—playing soldiers, playing shop. But all the time, they are hardening their muscles and sharpening their wits so that the pretence of being grown-up helps them to grow up in earnest.
Now, the moment you realise ‘Here I am, dressing up as Christ,’ it is extremely likely that you will see at once some way in which at that very moment the pretence could be made less of a pretence and more of a reality. You will find several things going on in your mind which would not be going on there if you were really a son of God. Well, stop them. Or you may realise that, instead of saying your prayers, you ought to be downstairs writing a letter, or helping your wife to wash- up. Well, go and do it.
From C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
With his typical clarity and insight, C. S. Lewis drew back the curtain on practical ways to build a stronger Christian character. But the principle he outlined applies to many aspects of life, and how to build a happier life more generally.
If we were to distill this advice into its basic form it would be something like, “If you are fearful, act brave, if you are impatient, act patiently, if you are chronically unhappy, act happy” and so forth.
Some people think this is a matter of ‘fake it till you make it.’ Perhaps there is some truth to that perspective. But that view also has the error of placing the emphasis on feelings being the true measure of what is false and what is real. For example, if one acts with patience, but feels impatient, is that ‘faking it?’ Why are the feelings of impatience accorded more status than the behavior of acting with patience? In other words, if you act patiently while feeling impatient is that faking it, or being patient?
Let’s look at another example. If you stand up to an unpleasant boss who is a bully, but you feel fearful when doing so, why should this be considered “fake” assertiveness?
If I do not feel kind, but behave with kindness and sacrifice my time/energy, to benefit my neighbor, why should this be considered “fake” kindness?
Actions matter more than feelings.
As a general rule, actions mold feelings. It is not instantaneous, it is a process. Most people have the experience of being upset with their spouse just before leaving for some social event. Driving to the event both spouses decide to behave more kindly to one another, although each is still upset with the other. By the time they arrive at the event the conflict is largely diffused. Why? Because each of them behaved in a way that led their feelings to change.
Researchers have known this for a long time. I think our grandparents knew it even before the researchers. Even so, let me give you some examples from research.
A study done at Northwestern University showed that having people slouch in their chairs caused to drop. Having people sit up straight in their chairs caused mood to become elevated. "By sitting straight -- you'll smile. Slumping you'll scowl. Body position alters the brain.“It appears to have direct biological effects on hormone levels, on cortisol levels, testosterone levels and that's the remarkable thing,” says Reinecke. It's called embodied cognition. Repeated studies have shown a change in brain chemistry is triggered by changes in body position."
Psychology Today had an interesting article on this topic wherein they noted that: “Each time you smile, you throw a little feel-good party in your brain. The act of smiling activates neural messaging that benefits your health and happiness. For starters, smiling activates the release of neuropeptides that work toward fighting off stress. Neuropeptides are tiny molecules that allow neurons to communicate. They facilitate messaging to the whole body when we are happy, sad, angry, depressed, or excited. The feel-good neurotransmitters — dopamine, endorphins and serotonin — are all released when a smile flashes across your face as well.”
Feelings are important, but they must not take a preeminent position in your life. Behave in the way you wish to feel, and more often than not you will eventually find your feelings following along like a puppy learning to follow its master’s lead. Not perfectly, not as quickly as you or I would like, but little by little learning to conform to the path chosen by the master.
The response to this advice is often “Hold on. That’s a lot easier said than done.”
If that is your reaction, then we agree. It is much easier said than done.
On the other hand, it is a lot easier to try this approach, and eventually get better at it, than to live life having your feelings control your behavior. That is a recipe for frequent conflict and unhappiness. I’ve seen this too many times to count.
Feelings, when given control of behavior, become tyrants. Feelings may lead you to avoid those things you should do, that would be good for you, and are good for others around you. Feelings may also lead you to do those things you should not do, which can pretty quickly build into regret and grief.
The key to making the most of emotion, creating a life where emotions enrich your experiences rather than control your experiences, is to develop the coping skills and strategies for responding to emotion. A wild horse becomes an asset when it learns to take a bit and bridle and allow a rider on it’s back.
Coping skills are the bit and bridle for your feelings, allowing you to take control. Next week I will discuss some easy coping skills that anyone can use to gain better control over the influence of emotions. Once these are consistently put to use, life becomes increasingly happier and more fulfilling.
So my challenge is for you to pick one emotion that seems to get the best of you time and again. Spend the next week behaving in a way that is the direct opposite to that which the emotion is pushing you. Do that just once a day to start with and see if you begin to have more control over the emotion by the end of the week.
Let me know how this works out. It’s tough, especially at first, but I’ve not met anyone who cannot start to gain more control if they persist. And that is definitely a start to a happier life.
The parenting question I responded to recently gets asked frequently. We've all been there: so busy devoting time to giving our best for our children that there is little left to give to our marriage. If you have children, the mother's dilema will probably sound familiar. The solution is simple. But with all the pressures put on parents today to be involved in nearly all aspects of their childrens' lives, it can be an exercise in battling guilt to actually put the solution into practice. Give it a read and let me know if this is a solution that has worked for you.
Question: My husband and I seldom have time to go on a date because our children (ages 8, 11 and 12) require most of our attention when we are not at work. Between keeping up the house, and taking our children to soccer practice, music lessons and school functions, we’re left exhausted and without much free time. What can we do?
You clearly are very devoted parents who want the best for your children. Unfortunately, the approach you have taken is not only exhausting, it robs your children of some important experiences they need. When parents focus on their children to the exclusion of the marital relationship, they communicate that the children are the center of the world.
Yes, I know, you want to tell me that they are in fact the most important thing in the world to you. I understand, but let’s make a distinction between them being the most important thing in your life versus being the center of the world (which is what your failure to make time for your marriage communicates).
Is that a healthy perspective for them to develop? If your child believes him/herself to be the center of the world what impact will that have on their peer relationships (most peers will view them as selfish).
Will teachers respond well to that view if your children express it through their behavior at school?
As young adults will their employers smile approvingly when they assert their central place of importance?
I’m going to assume you answered “No” to each of those questions.
Here is something that I have found very helpful to remember when raising my children. The job of a parent is to raise children who become healthy, productive adults who “play well with others.” This is a great gift to give to a child. Feeling loved, valued, and recognizing the he or she is not the center of the universe, although they may very well own all the real estate of your heart.
If you are still unconvinced, take a moment to think about how many adults have you admired who believe themselves to be the center of the world? Not many, right?
More precisely, zero, zilch, none.
So why would anyone want to raise a child with the burden of believing the world should revolve around him/her? Of course, no parent wants to do that, but it is easy to fall into the trap of conveying that message by putting aside important commitments/relationships for the sake of our children.
Please don’t misunderstand. Sacrificing for your child is a good thing. Even a noble thing. But it needs to be done with due consideration of balancing other things of importance. Such as the health of your marriage.
Children need to understand that they are deeply loved, that they are supported, and that their parents believe in them. They should not, however, grow up believing they are the center of the world. That saddles them with a liability.
To help your children develop a healthy perspective about their place in life you and your husband need to change your approach to parenting. How so you ask? Quite simply, it is by putting your marriage first and your children’s affairs second. NOT your children’s wellbeing second, but your children’s affairs (such as soccer, music lessons, help with homework, etc.).
This will mean that your children will not be involved in as many activities. Moreover, your children, even at this young age, will be doing more chores around the house (mom and dad are not the hired help, everyone needs to pitch in).
Starting now, as in “right away”, you and your husband should carve out a weekly date night.
Also, make sure that during most evenings of the week you and your husband have some ‘grown up’ time, 30 minutes or more just to yourselves. Sure, the children can be around, but they are not to interrupt your conversation.
If you take this advice and follow it for several months the exhaustion will lessen dramatically, and your children will be comforted and strengthened by the devotion they see their parents expressing to one another.
Let me know how things work out.
Today I want to talk with you briefly about depression. Not depression as in “I feel sort of sad today” or “I’m just in a rut”, but rather full-blown depression. The type of depression that robs you of joy, saps you of energy, depletes your self-confidence, disturbs your sleep, and causes you to feel like a Mack truck ran over your soul.
Yep, that type of depression. There is a name for this type of mood disorder, and it is called “Major Depression.”
Other than being extremely unpleasant, why is it important? Because depression not only interferes with living life to its fullest, but also results in diminished work/school performance, a deterioration of physical health, impairment in parenting, increases the risk of financial problems, and in extreme cases leads to suicidal thoughts or even attempts at taking one’s own life.
What’s more, it is more common than many people believe. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) reports that 16 million adults (4% of the adult population, or nearly one of every 20 adults) suffer with a major depression each year.
For teens the situation is even more sober. The NIMH reports that each year 3 million teens (13% of the adolescent population, or approximately one of every 8 teens ages) are confronted with a major depression.
I'm sure you are not surprised, after looking at those numbers, to hear that depression is one of the most common problems with which therapists work.
Fortunately, there is a high success rate for depression: the vast majority of people struggling with depression will experience significant improvement if they receive professional help. (Some people with serious depression can do well simply by making some lifestyle changes, but for most people with major depression, therapy and/or medication will be the most effective and fastest road to recovery).
Now here is the troubling part. Many adult, over one third to be exact, do not seek treatment. Sometimes because they do not realize that they are depressed. That is, they have struggled with the symptoms for so long a time that they now consider them to be a normal part of life. Others do not get help because they fear that there will be a social stigma attached to their seeking assistance.
With teenagers the situation is even worse. Sixty percent of depressed teens receive no treatment.
This is heartbreaking given the terrific success rate one can expect if professional help is provided.
With all of this in mind I would suggest that you click on the link here to go to a guide that describes the symptoms and treatments for depression. Take a look (it is a three-minute read), it might be just what you need at this time.
Then write me if you like and let me know if this guide was helpful to you.